Flash Presentation on the Ramazan Corps and the Iranian Ratlines into Iraq. Click the map to view. A Flash Player is required to view, click to download.
The issue of Iranian complicity in the Iraqi insurgency has been contentious since US and Iraqi forces began heavily targeting the Iranian networks in late 2006. While news reports have touted Iran’s role in reducing the violence, US military officers believe Iran still serves as a source of weapons and fighters in Iraq.
The Long War Journal has spoken to several mid-level and senior US military and intelligence officers, all of whom have declined to go on the record due to the sensitive nature of the Iranian issue. Based on these conversations as well as other information, The Long War Journal has learned the nature of the Qods Force operations in Iraq and how they move resources into the country.
Qods Force and the Iraqi insurgency
Iran began to extend its influence in Iraq immediately after the fall of Saddam Hussein’s regime in April 2003. Through the Qods Force, Iran’s external wing of the Revolutionary Guards Corps, Iran immediately moved money, weapons, and operatives inside Iraq to influence the various fractured Shia political parties and militias.
Iran worked through various militias such as the Mahdi Army, the Badr Corps, the Qazali Network, the Sheibani Network, and a host of other surrogates to attack Coalition forces, Iraqi Security Forces, and rival political leaders. When groups like the Badr Corps and its political backer the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq broke from the Iranian sphere of influence and integrated with the government, the Iranian-backed militias, which have since been designated the Special Groups, began attacking them as well.
To streamline operations in Iraq, the Qods Force established a unified command, called the Ramazan Corps, and split Iraq into three roughly geographical regions.
The Ramazan Corps – Qods Force Iraq Command
The picture of Qods Force’s command structure and operations in Iraq became clearer since US forces began heavily targeting the Iranian networks in late December 2006. Several high-level Qods Force officers – including Qais Qazali, Azhar al Dulaimi, Ali Mussa Daqduq, and Mahmud Farhadi – have been killed or captured in Irbil, Baghdad, and several unnamed locations.
During these raids, Coalition forces seized computers and computer drives, documentation, journals, and other evidence that reinforced information obtained through the interrogations of the Qods Force officers. While military and intelligence sources would not discuss other methods, communications intercepts and satellite imagery are also likely to play a key role in understanding the Qods Force’s activities in Iraq.
Critical information about the structure of the Ramazan Corps comes from the Iranian operatives captured in Iraq. Qais Qazali was the leader of the Qazali Network, which was responsible for several high-profile attacks on US and Iraqi forces. Qais, along with his brother Laith Qazali, and several other members of the Qazali Network were captured in early 2007. Azhar al Dulaimi, also a member of the Qazali network, was the tactical commander behind the attack on the Karbala Provincial Joint Coordination Center, which resulted in the kidnapping and subsequent murder of five US soldiers. Ali Mussa Daqduq, who served as the chief of guard to Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah and was the commander of Hezbollah’s special forces, was tasked by Iran to organize the Special Groups and “rogue” Mahdi Army cells along the lines of Lebanese Hezbollah. Mahmud Farhadi was the Qods Force officer in charge of the Zafr Command, one of the three units subordinate to the Ramazan Corps.
Multinational Forces Iraq learned that Iran set up the Ramazan Corps as a sophisticated command structure to coordinate military, intelligence, terrorist, diplomatic, religious, ideological, propaganda, and economic operations. “This Corps is responsible for most of the Qods Force operations in Iraq,” said Major General Kevin Bergner, the spokesman for Multinational Forces Iraq, during a briefing in Baghdad on October 3.
The Ramazan Corps is based out of the Ramazan Command Center in Tehran, but information obtained by The Long War Journal indicates significant elements have forward deployed to Mehran on the border to coordinate activities.
The Ramazan Corps is split into three separate commands – Nasr, Zafar, and Fajr – each covering a roughly geographical area in Iraq.
The Long War Journal confirmed this information with a spokesman at Multinational Forces Iraq, which was hesitant to provide additional information on the Ramazan Corps. “At this particular time MNF-I is only prepared to confirm the names of the three commands that are subordinate to Ramazan Corps and that [Mahmudi] Farhadi is the Commander of the Zafr Command,” said Lieutenant Commander Kevin S. Anderson.
The Nasr Command is based in Marivan in the Iranian north and deals with operations in the Kurdish regions and portions of Diyala province. The Zafar Command is based in Mehran in central Iran, and deals with operations in central Iraq, including Baghdad, Najaf, Karbala, Babil, Wasit, and portions of Diyala province.
The Fajr Command is based in Ahvaz in the south, although information obtained by The Long War Journal indicated command elements have moved forward to bases in Khorramshahr and Shalamcheh to direct operations. The Fajr Command directs operations in Basrah, Dhi Qhar, Maysan, and Muthanna.
Inside Iraq, the city of Amarah in Maysan province serves as a Qods Force / Ramazan Corps command and control center as well as one of the major distribution points for weapons in southern Iraq.
The southern and central Ratlines
The Ramazan Corps’ operations begin inside Iran and flow through several points of entry along the border to destinations inside Iraq. Once inside Iraq, weapons are stockpiled and then distributed to local cells to conduct attacks on the primary and secondary targets of opportunity. The Long War Journal has obtained detailed information on the Qods Force ratlines in the central and southern regions.
Inside Iran, Qods Force manufactures and distributes weapons, provides training for Iraqi recruits, then facilitates the movement of weapons and fighters inside Iraq. Iraqi recruits, largely radicalized Shia from Muqtada al Sadr’s Mahdi Army, are sent to Iran for what one US military officer described as “basic jihadi training.” The recruits receive several weeks of training with small arms and, depending on the units assigned, mortars and the use of explosively formed penetrators, or EFPs.
Several US military sources stated the EFPs are indeed “manufactured” inside Iran at “production lines” in the Iranian hubs of Ahvaz and Mehran. One officer stated the EFPs should not be considered IEDs, as they are professionally manufactured landmines.
“The EFP is not an IED, in that there is nothing improvised about them. They are manufactured in factories, mostly I believe in Iran,” said the US military officer who is familiar with both the Sunni and Shia variants of IEDs used in Iraq. “The true IED can be put together by small insurgent cells with little or no support. The EFP indicates a large logistical network.”
In the south and center, recruits and weapons are smuggled through four points of entry. In the central regions, the Mehran point of entry in the central province of Wasit is controlled by the Zafar Command. This is the primary conduit of Iranian weapons into Baghdad. The Al Sheeb entry at Maysan province and the Majnun and Shalamcheh entry points at Basrah province are fed by the Fajar Command based out of Ahvaz.
After being smuggled through the border crossings, Iranian weapons are moved to what are described as “strategic distribution hubs” in the cities of Badrah, Al Kut, Amarah, Qurnah, and Basrah. From these distribution hubs, weapons stocks are then moved forward to “tactical distribution hubs” in Hillah, Diwaniyah, Al Fajr, Samawah, and Nasiriyah.
After the weapons are moved to the strategic distribution hubs, they are warehoused for later use. From strategic hubs, the weapons are distributed to the tactical distribution hubs. From these tactical hubs, the weapons are then distributed to local cells for attacks on US troops, Iraqi Security Forces, and rival political and militia leaders as needed.
Baghdad is considered strategic center of gravity for EFP and mortar strikes. The Iranians believe they can influence events decisively by attacking Coalition and Iraqi targets in and around Baghdad. Iranian-made mortars and larger rockets are fired regularly at the massive Victory complex south of Baghdad where the US military maintains a large presence. US and Iraqi military patrols are targeted by EFPs inside Baghdad.
Iraqi and Coalition forces and rival political groups are targets for the Iranian-backed terror groups. The Ramazan Corps views the south as a means to shape and influence operations in and around Baghdad.
The cities of Diwaniyah, Nasiriyah, and Basrah are the primary target locations in the south. Diwaniyah is fed by caches in Al Fajr; Nasiriyah is fed by the caches in Amarah, Qurnah, and Basrah.
Is Iran still active in Iraq?
Since the surge began, Coalition and Iraqi forces have made significant efforts to target the Qods Force-backed Special Groups operating in Iraq. Raids on Special Groups and rogue Mahdi Army cells skyrocketed since the surge began in January, while border crossings have been reinforced with Iraqi and Coalition forces.
In Wasit province, Multinational Division Central deployed a Georgian Army brigade along the border to specifically intercept the Iranian ratlines flowing from Badrah to Al Kut and Baghdad.
While several senior Iraqi officials and US military commanders have stated Iran has cooperated in reducing the flow of weapons and fighters into Iraq, some US combat commanders engaged in fighting the Special Groups disagree.
On November 15, Major General James Simmons, the Deputy Commander for Multinational Forces Iraq said the reduction in Iranian-inspired attacks along with a lack of evidence that weapons were crossing the border indicate Iran has agreed to a pledge to reduce violence in Iraq. “We believe that this indicates the commitments Iran has made appear to be holding up,” Simmons said.
Iraqi spokesman Ali al Dabbagh agreed. “Iran is showing more restraint in sending people and weapons to destabilize Iraq,” said Dabbagh on November 18. “[Prime Minister Maliki] spoke very frankly with the supreme leader [Ayatollah Ali Khamenei] in Mashad. He said Iran had to choose whether to support the [Iraqi] government or any other party. … Everything gives the feeling that Iran is making good on its pledge. The freezing of the Mahdi Army is evidence of its good intentions. Iran played a role in this.”
But three US commanders directly in the fight against the Special Groups in three of the most active theaters for the Ramazan Corps — Baghdad, central provinces, and along the Iranian border — disagree.
Colonel Don Farris, the commander of the 2nd Brigade Combat Team, 82nd Airborne Division based in the heart of Sadr City in Baghdad, stated the Special Groups still pose a major threat. “While the violence is down, I remain very concerned in our sector about these special groups,” Farris said. “They’re very lethal, they’re organized, they’re sophisticated and I have not seen that their operations have declined or diminished in any way, shape or form here in the last several months. We have not seen any slowing down or any indicators that these special groups are going to curtail their activities or quit receiving this support that’s coming from outside the country.”
Major General Rick Lynch, the Commander of Multinational Division Central, whose area of operations includes Wasit, Karbala, Babil, and southern Baghdad provinces, is not certain Iran has reduced the flow of aid to the Shia terror groups. “I don’t know what this Iranian pledge is, but the number of munitions has increased,” Lynch said on November 11. “It could be that we are finding them more. But it is still troublesome. I have no idea when these EFP munitions came … before or after the pledge. I don’t know.”
On November 22, Lynch stated his forces are still finding Iranian munitions “that are traceable back to Iran,” and the Special Groups are still active. “They’re still operating in our battlespace,” he said. “But I can’t say whether or not this is an increased problem or a flatline problem or a decreasing problem.”
Colonel Mark Mueller, the commander of the border transition team in Wasit province, stated on November 20 that weapons are still moving across the border. “We do know that explosively formed penetrators are getting across the border, we do know that … rockets are coming across the border, so of course it’s a concern,” Mueller said.
Local intolerance of Iranian influence
The Iraqi Shia in the south have begun to organize against Iranian activities inside their country. In November, over 300,000 Shia, including 600 tribal leaders “signed a petition accusing Iran of sowing ‘disorder’ in southern Iraq.” “More than 300,000 people from the southern provinces condemned the interference of the Iranian regime in Iraq and especially in spreading security disorder in the provinces,” the sheikhs said in a statement released to Reuters.
Tribal militias in Wasit province formed to help secure the Iranian border. “The leader of the Migasees tribe here in Wasit province, acknowledged tribal leaders have discussed creating a brigade of young men trained by the Americans to bolster local security as well as help patrol the border with Iran,” the Associated Press reported. Tribal militias are forming in Maysan and Basrah provinces, Multination Forces Iraq told The Long War Journal in a recent inquiry on the status of the Concerned Local Citizens forces currently forming nationwide.
Iran’s complicity with the Iraqi insurgency has been a problem since the Coalition invasion of Iraq in March 2003. It was only in late 2006 that the US began to address this problem seriously. Whether Iranian intervention in Iraq is increasing, decreasing, or unchanged, Coalition and Iraqi forces must continue military and counterterrorism operations against the Ramazan Corps inside Iraq. While there have been several reports of Coalition special forces conducting raids inside Iran these accounts are unconfirmed. The Iraqi and Coalition governments must continue to pressure Iran both militarily and diplomatically to halt its terror operations inside Iraq in order for the central government to gain stronger control of the security of the country as a whole.
Bill Roggio is a Senior Fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and the Editor of FDD’s Long War Journal.