Iranian involvement in Iraq: an old or a new case?

Has the US military stepped up the case identifying Iranian involvement in Iraq over the past several weeks, or is the information released over the past few weeks just a continuation of the case being made against Iran?

In an October 12 posting at The Counterterrorism Blog, and a more detailed entry at The New York Daily News’ Mouth of the Potomac James Gordon Meek stated that “in recent weeks, the military command in Baghdad has stepped up its offensive – both public and tactical – against Iranian-backed ‘special groups militias’ south of Baghdad, which have led to dozens being killed or captured. The military has also emphasized any seizure of ‘Iranian-made’ weapons, such as mortars, IEDs and hand grenades, no matter how small the cache.” A careful review of the events over the past year will show that Multinational Forces Iraq has pressed the case against Iranian involvement in Shia terrorist activity in Iraq since early 2007.

First, the frequency and tone of the press releases concerning Iranian involvement in Iraq has not changed considerably over the past several weeks. I follow both Multinational Forces Iraq press releases the media’s coverage of Iranian involvement closely. My impression is that the number of press releases concerning the targeting of the Special Groups and the identification of munitions of Iranian origin has actually decreased over the past several weeks. There have been days over the past year where three to four press releases identified raids on the Special Groups and identified Iranian-made weaponry. Press releases on these matters have slowed since around mid-September.

Second, the military isn’t “complaining about Iranian influence on the battlefield,” no more than it “complained of non-Iraqi Arabs flocking to join Al Qaeda-in-Mesopotomia.” In both cases, the military has ample evidence of foreign involvement in Iraq. In the case of al Qaeda, the US has captured and killed numerous foreign fighters. Over 80 percent of the suicide bombers are foreign.

The US military has long maintained that al Qaeda in Iraq is led by foreign al Qaeda, not that al Qaeda in Iraq is a wholly foreign manned organization. Al Qaeda in Iraq’s leader, Abu Ayyub al Masri, is an Egyptian selected by al Qaeda Central. Al Masri was a close aide to Ayman al Zawahiri, and was a member of Zawahiri’s Egyptian Islamic Jihad. Its prior leader, Abu Musab al Zarqawi, was an experienced al Qaeda operative of Jordanian origin. Much of al Qaeda in Iraq’s senior leadership is of foreign origin, and many of these operatives have been killed or captured inside Iraq. Over the past year, senior global al Qaeda operatives such as Omar Farouq, one of Osama bin Laden’s lieutenants and al Qaeda’s operations chief in Southeast Asia, and Abd al-Hadi al-Iraqi, one of bin Laden’s senior deputies who was “personally chosen by bin Laden to monitor al Qaeda operations in Iraq,” have been captured inside Iraq. Farouq spent time in Afghanistan’s Bagram prison before his escape in 2005. Numerous enemy documents, communications intercepts and interrogations support the case of foreign al Qaeda involvement in Iraq.

The case for Iranian Involvement in Iraq is no different. The US has killed and captured numerous Iranian-supported operatives, including eight senior Qods Force operatives and senior members of Iranian-backed terror networks. Documents such as operational plans, diaries, journals, passports, itemized vouchers and others have been seized in raids. Weapons with Iranian markings, shipped from Iranian stocks, have been found inside Iraq. Explosively Formed Projectiles of the type designed by Iran for Hezbollah to use against Israel have been employed inside Iraq killing upwards of 300 US soldiers (not the 200 mentioned.) The US even has satellite evidence of a camp designed specifically to train operatives for an assault in an Iraqi city. During my last embed in Iraq with Multinational Division Central, which is responsible for southern Baghdad province, Babil, Najaf, Karbala, and Wasit provinces, numerous officers expressed that they were convinced of Iran’s involvement in Iraq.

While General Petraeus’ identification of Iranian Ambassador Hassan Kazemi-Qomi as a member of Qods Force is certainly a bombshell, but it is just the latest release of information by the US military on Iranian involvement in Iraq. In fact, Multinational Forces Iraq began to address the threat of Iranian influence in Iraq even prior to the appointment of General David Petraeus as overall commander.

Below is a timeline of the major events in the disclosure of evidence of Iranian involvement in Iraq. This is by no means a complete depiction of Multinational Forces Iraq’s release of information on Iran, as there has been on average roughly one to two press releases per day on Qods Force linked operatives, the Special Groups, Iranian weapons and other information concerning Iran. For an example of the massive amounts of information released by Multinational Forces Iraq on a daily basis, see “Targeting the Secret Cellsfrom June 2007. The Secret Cells was the precursor name for the Iranian-backed groups, which has since been changed to Special Groups.

December 2006: US forces captured two Iranian Qods Force agents during a raid on a SCIRI office in Baghdad (they were subsequently released after pressure for the Iraqi government.) The Washington Post reported the two Iranian intelligence agents captured in Baghdad possessed “weapons lists, documents pertaining to shipments of weapons into Iraq, organizational charts, telephone records and maps, among other sensitive intelligence information… [and] information about importing modern, specially shaped explosive charges into Iraq.” One was “the third-highest-ranking official of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards’ al-Qods Brigade.”

January 2007: US forces captured five Qods Force officers in the northern Kurdish city of Irbil. These officers became known as the Irbil Five, and are still in US custody. The Iranian government still maintains the men are consular officials, and is pressing for their release. At this point in time, it appears the US strategy began to change, and the Iranian networks became a major focus of US disruption and intelligence operations.

January 2007: Shia extremists conducted a sophisticated attack on the Karbala Provincial Joint Coordination Center, which resulted in the kidnapping and subsequent murder of five U.S. soldiers. On January 26 I stated that Qods Force was very likely behind this attack, due to the level of detail involved. Four days later, the Pentagon began actively investigating links to Iran. It appears Iran was attempting to secure the capture of US officers in exchange for the Irbil Five Qods Force officers.

March 2007: Coalition forces captured Qais Qazali, his brother Laith Qazali, and several other members of the Qazali network, an Iranian-backed terrorist group. Qazali was a spokesperson and senior aide to Muqtada al Sadr and worked closely with Qods Force.

April 2007: General Petraeus briefed on Iranian involvement in Iraq, and stated the Qazali Network had close links to Iranian Qods Force. “They were provided substantial funding, training on Iranian soil, advanced explosive munitions and technologies as well as run of the mill arms and ammunition, in some cases advice and in some cases even a degree of direction,” Petraeus said. “[The Iranian government is] responsible for providing the weapons, the training, the funding and in some cases the direction for operations that have indeed killed U.S. soldiers,” Petraeus said. “There is no question about the connection between Iran and these components [the Special Groups], attacks that have killed our soldiers.”

Coalition forces seized an important document belonging to the Qazali network, which Gen. Petraeus described as a “22-page memorandum on a computer that detailed the planning, preparation, approval process and conduct of the operation that resulted in five of our soldiers being killed in Karbala.” Petraeus described the 22 page document as a balance sheet which the Qazali network used to document success of their operations. “We think that records are kept so that the individuals that carry out these attacks can demonstrate what they’re doing to those who are providing the resources to them, providing the additional funding, training, arms, ammunition, advanced technologies and so forth.”

May 2007: Coalition forces killed Azhar al-Dulaimi during a raid north of Baghdad. Al Dulaimi is described as the “mastermind” and “tactical commander” of the Karbala attack, as well as other high profile terror attacks in Iraq. Dulaimi was a leader in the Qazali network.

June 2007: At this point in time, I identified a significant trend in Multinational Forces Iraq press releases on the “Secret Cells,” which was the name given the Iranian-backed Shia extremist groups. This name later changed to “Special Groups,” and included Iranian backed groups such as the Qazali and Sheibani networks, as well as the “rogue” Mahdi Army cells. I documented the flood of press releases from April to late June 2007 [scroll to the bottom of the entry.]

June 2007: Iraqi Special Operations Forces, backed by British troops, conducted major raids against the Qazali Network in the southern province of Maysan. Over 20 members of the network were killed, 6 wounded and 1 captured in the raid against “the secret cell terrorist network known for facilitating the transport of weapons and explosively formed penetrators, or EFPs, from Iran to Iraq, as well as bringing militants from Iraq to Iran for terrorist training” in Amarah and Majjar al-Kabir. Iraqi and British forces called in airstrikes after meeting heavy resistance on the ground, which included “heavy small-arms fire and rocket-propelled grenade attacks.”

June 2007: Twenty-seven Secret Cell [Special Groups] members were killed and 17 captured during three separate raids inside Baghdad over the course of two days. “Intelligence reports indicate that the suspected terrorist targeted during the raid is associated with key leaders in the secret cell terrorist network and has ties to Iran,” Multinational Forces Iraq reported in a press release.

June 2007: The June 4 edition of Aviation Week and Space Technology reported Iran built a mockup of the Karbala Provincial Joint Coordination Center inside its borders. The “training center” was discovered by a U.S. spy satellite surveying Iran.

July 2007: US forces captured Mussa Ali Daqduq. Daqduq is a senior Hezbollah operative who served as the commander of Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah’s bodyguard as well as the commander of Hezbollah’s special operations unit. He tasked by Iran to organize the Special Groups and “rogue” Mahdi Army cells along the lines of Lebanese Hezbollah. Documents seized during Daqduq’s capture, along with statements made during interrogations and information given by other captured Special Groups operatives confirmed Iran’s significant role in the Shia terrorist insurgency. Daqduq met with senior Qods Force officers inside Iran in 2005.

July 2007: US forces captured Azhar al Dulaimi, the tactical commander behind the Karbala Provincial Joint Communications Center attack that resulted in the kidnapping and murder of five US soldiers. The Qazali network organized this attack, which was ordered and directed by Iran.

August 2007: A joint Iraqi and US force conducted a raid inside Sadr City. Thirty members of the Special Groups cells were killed and 12 were captured. The strike force was targeting a “cell of a Special Groups terrorist network known for facilitating the transport of weapons and explosively formed penetrators, or EFPs, from Iran to Iraq, as well as bringing militants from Iraq into Iran for terrorist training,” according to the Multinational Forces Iraq press release. “The targeted individual in last night’s raid acts as a proxy between the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps-Qods Force and the Iraqi EFP network,” and “assists with the facilitation of weapons and EFP shipments into Iraq as well as the transfer of militant extremists to Iran for training.”

August 2007: In interviews with Britain’s The Independent, Muqtada al Sadr admitted to working hand in hand with Lebanese Hezbollah. “We have formal links with Hezbollah, we do exchange ideas and discuss the situation facing Shiites in both countries,” Sadr told The Independent. “It is natural that we would want to improve ourselves by learning from each other. We copy Hezbollah in the way they fight and their tactics, we teach each other and we are getting better through this.” Sadr later denied conducting the interview and threatened to sue em>The Independent, but never followed through.

August 2007: Major General Rick Lynch, the commanding general of Multinational Division Central, stated there are over 50 members of Iran’s Qods Force directing, facilitating, or supporting attacks in his area of operations. Lynch stated most of the Qods force operatives move through the porous border in Wasit province.

September 2007: The 3rd Brigade of the Georgian Army begins its forward deployment in Wasit province, and sets up checkposts along the Special Groups/Qods Force ratlines. The Georgian Army hopes to stem the flow of weapons, equipment and personnel through Wasit province.

September 2007: Multinational Forces Iraq announced the capture of “a highly-sought individual suspected of being an Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps-Qods Force” operative in Karbala.

September 2007: Multinational Forces Iraq captured Mahmud Farhadi, one of the three region commanders of the Ramazan Corps. “Farhadi was the officer-in-charge of the Zafr Command, one of three units subordinate to the Ramazan Corps of the Qods Force,” said Brigadier General Kevin Bergner. “This Corps is responsible for most of the Qods Force operations in Iraq. As the Zafr Commander, he was responsible for all Qods Force operations in north-central Iraq that included cross-border transfers of weapons, people and money.”

September 2007: Fifteen members of the Special Groups were captured in Baghdad. Also, Rear Admiral Mark Fox stated Iran has supplied the Special Groups with Misagh-1 man-portable surface-to-air missiles. “We’ve said that we’ve found these things [the Misagh 1 missiles], we’ve seen them employed,” Fox said.

October 2007: Twenty-five Special Groups fighters were killed during an engagement northwest of Baqubah during a raid designed to capture a Special Groups leader. “Coalition forces were targeting a Special Groups commander believed to be associated with members of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard – Qods Force,” Multinational Forces Iraq reported. “Intelligence indicates that he was responsible for facilitating criminal activity and is involved in the movement of various weapons from Iran to Baghdad.”

October 2007: General Petraeus stated that Iranian Ambassador Hassan Kazemi-Qomi is a Qods Force agent. “The ambassador is a Qods force member.” Kazemi-Qomi’s rank in Qods Force was not disclosed. “Now he has diplomatic immunity and therefore he is obviously not subject (to arrest),” Petraeus said. “He is acting as a diplomat.”

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Bill Roggio is a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and the Editor of FDD's Long War Journal.

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  • Winger says:

    Thanks for the article. It seems that the Iranians are becoming very adept at being militarily involved in many countries while denying any offical involvement. It reminds me of Oliver North and the Contras until the supply plane got shot down and an American captured. They help with supplies, equipment, logistics, training, etc and basically just tell everyone else so what.
    What are the consequences to these actions? The international community will do nothing. They will claim they need proof but Iran will deny and therefore the proof is refutable. After all, a closed society claims they didn’t do it so it must be so. Russia will back them all the way due to the large monetary investments those countries have with each other. Most other countries around the world seem to get a big kick out of watching the US flounder amid the chaos created by countries such as Syria & Iran. (I can still smell the sulpher).
    What the answer? Do we use this evidence to attack Iran? Do we continue to apply “pressure” both diplomatically and economically? If the Iranian diplomats are in it up to their eyeballs, what good is diplomacy? All it takes in one country to disagree with us and sanctions become worthless. Other countries see our struggles as just rewards for being the “richest” country in the world. If we attack, we are just imperialists trying to take over the world. How do we stop this insanity?

  • Thanos says:

    Bill excellent report and timeline. Winger, great questions that I certainly don’t have answers to. We got the first solid indicators of Iranian involvement last year, but they were discounted largely because they came from MEK sources. So it’s not something new.
    I hope we keep pressing across all fronts.
    What has me worried is their involvement in all neighboring countries. We have evidence in Afghanistan, Pakistan is starting to take note, and there are indicators that Quds is operating in Azerbaijan as well.
    With all that said, do we think they are leaving Turkey out, or is Quds there as well?

  • MattR says:

    Winger, I’m guessing the plan to stop them is to take a long view and keep doing what we’re doing. Build up Iraq and Iran will have its own problems. All these reports about Iran’s involvement are probably being read by the Iraqi Shiites as much as everyone else in the world. The difference is the Iraqis want peace and it’s obvious that Iran isn’t helping. Iran has nothing to offer but explosives and violence, and is pushing the average Iraqi towards the Coalition, just as AQ did. Pushing them to form police forces, and local government, and some stability.

    The insurgents only ever had one strategy that could work and that was to get the coalition to leave. People say the Baghdad clock is running slower than the Washington clock, but the insurgent clock has been running faster than at least the Iraqi-in-the-street clock. The insurgents have nothing to offer and the coalition has stuck around long enough to be the other option. I’d say we’re past the tipping point. All we have to do is keep doing what we’re doing. The only other option for the insurgents is to leave for 3 or 4 years, hope we’ve left by than, and come back. I’m not sure they’re smart enough for that.

  • Winger says:

    I worry about how these groups from Iran can have so much influence. Look at Hezbolla in Lebanon. They have a huge influence there. Iran has influence in Syria, Iraq, Afghanistan, and some in Pakistan. They are the single biggest thorn in our side for promoting global peace.
    Is it the oil profits, the religion, or just political savvy. I hate being outsmarted and right now it looks like they have the upper hand. I hope we have some strategy in place that will outsmart Iran and severly limit their influence. It will eventually take the will of the international community to do so and avert military action.
    Based on previous US strategies, I need a bit more reassurance. Whats our Public Relations lady up to? Didn’t the President assign Karen Hughes to travel the world and “fix” our image. We need that desparately so we can get some traction. Now is the time. Of course, we can’t even convince the Democratic party in our own country that the US is a genuine force for good in the world.

  • Evan says:

    There is really no mystery here and the answer is quite simple. Vigorously support and arm the Iranian people and let them remove our mutual enemy – the Mullahs. We have been at war with Iran for 30 years, just never bothered to acknowledge it. We simply cannot allow them nukes, it will force our hand and we should work through the Iranians themselves as much as possible. I still don’t understand our paralysis on this issue.

  • ajacksonian says:

    Iran is having its problems, not only on the domestic side (civil unrest, rallies against the regime, etc.) but in its ethnic sub-populations. It seems that the ethnic Persians have created a hostile atmosphere in multiple areas with different ethnicities: Azeris, Kurds, Arabs along the west; Baluchs in east and center. While Iran used to send agents in via the Kudish areas, that has now diminished and various Kurds are now shifting to return the favor which is keeping the IRGC and Baseej busy in Kurdish Iran. The cross-border problems there rival that along the Turkish border with the Kurds, but Iran wants no dissent at all to leak out so we don’t hear much about that.
    One thing that is not realized by most, is that the Iranian Army is distrusted because it is demographically aligned with the population. Likewise the purely civil police (not Baseej or Special Guards) are rarely called upon to quell societal protests as they aren’t trusted. The regime does not keep its Army well trained or supplied, and, instead, supplies the IRGC and its external components (Hezbollah Lebanon, Algeria, Bosnia, Chechnya, Tri-Border S. America) better than the regular Army. The Baseej are, by and large, religious thugs and they also hire mercenaries from the ‘stans in north and northeastern Iran: men with no adherance to the local population.
    What we see in Hezbollah (various areas and the ‘Secret Cells’ in Iraq), IRGC, Special Guards, Baseej and mercenaries are the best Iran has. Its airforce is, by and large, grounded and depending upon ancient airframes. Likewise their investment in Russian anti-air systems just got a rude surprise in Syria. Even worse is that Israel controlled the airspace over the Bekaa (‘the most heavily defended air corridor on the planet’ as many used to say) with impunity. Hezbollah, Syria and Iran could do *nothing* against Israeli jets.
    When thinking about Hezbollah in Lebanon, it is more like a Foreign Legion than a ‘terror organization’. That said by trying to mix the training it does neither very well, and suffers the lacks of both: poor unit cohesion, poor transport capability, limited but heavy arms, and static emplacements that serve more as death traps than hard points. Their work with FARC in training has demonstrated that tropical tactics don’t work in a dry climate.
    Thus Iran is left with more traditional terror tactics, drawing on its wide variety of organizations, especially the External Security Organizations brought up by Imad Mugniyah. By utilizing its best terror trainers, giving heavy EFP capability and some COINTEL, the ‘Secret Cells’ have been able to use training and cash to subvert parts of JaM and attempt to re-assert control over parts of the Badr organization (with mixed results). While many put forward that terrorism is ‘easy to do’, that is only so on the armaments side. Arms and explosives are cheap on the global market. Skill, however, as anyone who runs any business will tell you, is expensive. AQI faced this in Iraq where they had, literally, tons of weapons and equipment in caches, but no one to guard them.
    Iran is trying to get a better mix, but finding that even its operatives haven’t fought in an environment like Iraq. Even S. Lebanon against Israel is not a good analog for what is going on, and the tactics there are losing ones. The limited number of Chechens may be of help, but Russia is not the US in the way it fights, either. Now we find out who has the faster OODA loop… my bet is against Iran.
    The answer for Iraq, beyond sudden revolution in Iran, is a mix of physical border security, electronic border security (ground/UAV) and a general ‘if you aren’t going through the controlled checkpoints, you are a target’ sort of concept. Syria, having played the ‘fund the insurgent’ game for a couple of decades in Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey is now finding AQ utilizing their funds to set up shop in Syria. And while funding the Kurds in Turkey has been a fun game for Syria, they have repressed them heavily inside Syria and any mix of AQ and Kurds is not one that Syria would like to wake up to. So long as fighters were transiting through Syria to Iraq, that was good… the moment they get stopped up in Syria, then problems start to fester there. Bad for Syria, but they started it. And AQI pushed back along its supply lines tend to wind up in either Syria or Iran… AQ mixed in with Kurds, Azeris and Arabs is not something Iran is counting on, either.
    The US has options… and a tight situation at the same time. Anything that erupts in Iran could seriously turn into a major problem: if there is a serious civil unrest or civil war between the Persians and any of the ethnic minorities, the Army may come out to defend Iran and quell the uprisings…. if ethnic Persians join in, all bets are off the table. Even with the Iranian Army shifted under the IRGC, that is more titular than effective at this point. As the Iranian Army goes, in any serious trouble, so goes Iran. A seriously good HUMINT and propaganda offensive along with the standard economic work would yield results…
    The last factor is the Iranian petro-infrastructure: it is on the verge of collapse due to lack of maintenance, oversight and spares. Iran has not met export quotas for OPEC for close to two years, and other producers have picked up the slack. Gasoline is running short as the refineries die of maltreatment. General productivity has been saw-tooth stable on a plateau, indicating very little, if any, marginal expansion of fields. Natural gas, heavily subsidized, is no longer available for export or even for field rejuvination as the domestic use has skyrocketed. The money made via petroleum has been decreasing steadily for nearly four years, with the result of civil servants not being paid for months at a time. That is also increasing general, nation-wide pressure as the overall cash cow is being starved. It would not take very much, at all, to bring the petroleum house of cards down. With no marginal expansion of note for 20 years, no replacement of infrastructure, and what is retained being poorly used and maintained, the system actually loses oil not through theft, but through cracks, flares, and leaking pumps. No serious oil producing nation lets *any* of that happen. Gazprom will not *touch it* for *any* amount of money…. that sums it up pretty well.
    So the question is: what goes first? Ethnic tensions? Civil tensions? Or a collapse of the petro-infrastructure? Backing up of AQ and some mercenaries turning rogue?
    The US has many, many options. None are perfect, and maybe just waiting for the thing to implode is the best bet and offer help after… but that will unmoor Hezbollah to its distributed infrastructure, that no longer depends on Iran. If the regime flees, as it would on an implosion, then the general threat is distributed to very hard to get places. And if Iran spends the last of its money to get a nuclear device or two… all bets are off, obviously. The last thing we really want to see is a Hezbollah organization with no contacts left to get at in Iran and *with* nuclear devices. That is a very poor solution.

  • Congressional foreign policy is a bad idea, especially when practiced unilaterally.

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Islamic state



Al shabaab

Boko Haram