Iraqi forces kill senior Mahdi Army operative

Iraqi police killed a senior member of the Mahdi Army during a raid in Diwaniyah province, sparking a protest from the Sadrist movement. Twenty other ” Sadr loyalists” were detained in other raids in the province, according to a Sadrist spokesman.

Mahdi Army commander Tariq Azab was killed in a shootout after police attempted to arrest him, AFP reported. “He tried to escape, which prompted armed clashes and he was killed,” a police official told the news agency. The police official described Azab as an “important” leader of the Mahdi Army who had just returned from Iran.

A US official said Azab was wanted for conducting attacks on US forces and murdering Iraqi civilians. “The raiding force was planning to arrest him,” the US source based out of Camp Echo told Voices of Iraq. “The killed man was carrying out armed operations against US forces and is wanted on charges of murdering civilians in the province.”

It is unclear if Azab is part of the mainstream Mahdi Army loyal to the Sadrist movement or part of the Iranian-backed splinter groups such as the Asaib al Haq, or League of the Righteous. An official from the Sadrist office in Diwaniyah province described Azab as a “Sadr loyalist” and claimed Iraqi police and US forces conducted multiple raids against the Sadrists in Diwaniyah resulting in the detention of 20 members of the Sadrist movement.

The Sadrist official also claimed the raid was conducted after the Sadrists posted gains in Diwaniyah. “The campaign came on a background of initial vote counting for the provincial council elections, which showed that we have garnered a large number of votes in Diwaniyah,” Nidal al No’mani Voices of Iraq.

But election results reveal that the independent political parties backed by the Sadrist movement had a poor showing in southern and central Iraq. In Diwaniyah (Qadisiya), the Sadrists received just 6.7 percent of the vote, coming in fifth place in the polling. In Maysan province, the Sadrists received 15.2 percent (second) of the vote. In Baghdad the movement received nine percent (tied for second place). In Basrah, the movement received five percent (fourth place). These three provinces are considered Sadrist “strongholds.” Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki’s party won the elections in nine of the 14 provinces where elections were held, including in Baghdad, Basrah, and Maysan.

Iranian activity in Iraq

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.

Both the Iraqi government and the US military have said Iran has backed various Shia terror groups, including elements of the Mahdi Army. While the Iranian government has denied the charges, Iraqi and US forces have detained dozens of Iranian Qods Force officers and operatives, captured numerous Shia terrorist leaders under Iranian command, and have found ample documentation as well as Iranian-made weapons.

Iran’s Qods Force, the special operations branch of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps, has supported various Shia militias and terror groups inside Iraq, including the Mahdi Army, helping to build the groups along the same lines as Lebanese Hezbollah. Iran denies the charges, but captive Shia terrorists admit to being recruited by Iranian agents and then transported into Iran for training.

Iran established the Ramazan Corps immediately after the fall of Saddam Hussein’s regime to direct operations inside Iraq. The US military says Iran and Lebanese Hezbollah have helped establish, fund, train, and arm, and have provided operational support for Shia terror groups such as the Hezbollah Brigades and the League of the Righteous. The US military refers to these groups as well as the Iranian-backed elements of the Mahdi Army as the “Special Groups.” These groups train in camps inside Iran.

US and Iraqi forces have captured several high-level Qods Force officers inside Iraq since late 2006. Among those captured are Mahmud Farhadi, one of the three Iranian regional commanders in the Ramazan Corps; Ali Mussa Daqduq, a senior Lebanese Hezbollah operative; Qais Qazali, the leader of the Qazali Network; and Azhar al Dulaimi, one of Qazali’s senior tactical commanders. The US has imposed sanctions on Major General Ahmad Foruzandeh, the former Qods Force commander, and Abdul Reza Shahlai, a deputy commander in Iran’s Qods Force, for backing Shia terror groups inside Iraq.

US military officers believe Iran is ramping up its operations inside Iraq after its surrogates suffered a major defeat at the hands of the Iraqi military during the spring and summer of 2008. Iraqi troops went on the offensive against the Mahdi Army and other Iranian-backed terror groups in Baghdad, Basrah, and central and southern Iraq. More than 2,000 Mahdi Army members were killed and thousands more were wounded. The operation forced Muqtada al Sadr to agree to a cease-fire, disband the Mahdi Army, and pull the Sadrist political party out of the provincial elections. Sadr’s moves caused shock waves in the Mahdi Army, as some of the militia’s leaders wished to continue the fight against US forces in Baghdad and in southern and central Iraq.

The League of the Righteous is a splinter group that broke away from Muqtada al Sadr’s Mahdi Army after Sadr announced he would disband the Mahdi Army and formed a small, secretive military arm to fight Coalition forces in June. The new group, called the Brigade of the Promised Day, has not been linked to any attacks since its formation last summer.

The League of the Righteous was led by Qais Qazali up until his capture in 2007. It is now said to be under the command of Akram al Kabi, a former Sadr loyalist.

The League of the Righteous receives funding, training, weapons, and direction from Iran’s Qods Force, the country’s secretive special operations group that backs terror groups such as Lebanese Hezbollah. The League of the Righteous conducts attacks with the deadly armor-piercing explosively formed projectiles known as EFPs, as well as with the more conventional roadside bombs.

The size of the League of the Righteous is unknown, but hundreds of members of the group were killed, captured, or fled to Iran during the Iraqi government offensive against the Mahdi Army from March to July of 2008, according to the US military.

Sadr is looking to pull the rank and file of the League back into the fold of the Sadr political movement. In a recent message issued by Sadr where he rejected the US-Iraqi security agreement, he said he “extends his hand to the mujahideen in the so-called Asaib but not their leaderships who have been distracted by politics and mortal life from the [two late] Sadrs and the interests of Iraq and Iraqis.”

The US and Iraqi military believe the Special Groups are preparing to re-initiate fighting as their leaders and operatives are beginning to filter back into Iraq from Iran. On Feb. 4, Lieutenant General Lloyd Austin, the deputy commander of Multinational Forces Iraq, said that Iran continues to arm, fund, and train the Special Groups, and that munitions traced back to Iran continue to be uncovered in Iraq. Recent intelligence and the finds of new Iranian caches “lead us to believe that Iranian support activity is still ongoing,” Austin warned.

For more information on Iran’s involvement in supporting Shia terror groups in Iraq, see:

Iranian Qods Force Agents Detained in Irbil Raid

Jan. 14, 2007

The Karbala attack and the IRGC

Jan. 26, 2007

Iran, Hezbollah train Iraqi Shia “Secret Cells”

July 2, 2007

Surging in Wasit Province

Sept. 18, 2007

Captured Iranian Qods Force officer a regional commander in Iraq

Oct. 3, 2007

Iran’s Ramazan Corps and the ratlines into Iraq

Dec. 5, 2007

Sadr forms new unit to attack US forces

June 13, 2008

Sadrist movement withdraws from political process

June 15, 2008

Mahdi Army decimated during recent fighting

June 26, 2008

Iraqi forces detain Sadrist leaders, uncover Special Groups headquarters in Amarah

July 2, 2008

Iran continues to train Shia terror groups for attacks in Iraq

Aug. 15, 2008

New Special Groups splinter emerges on Iraqi scene

Aug. 20, 2008

Iraqi troops find EFP factory in Sadr City

Oct. 30, 2008

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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5 Comments

  • Hugh says:

    Bill, what is the feeling on Sadr’s return to Iraq? I can’t help but think he’s going to attempt to run the show from Iran like the Hamas leadership does in Syria. al Maliki can’t possibly want to accept him back in Iraq if he continues talking like this.
    Also, with continued and rising Iranian support, is there ANY talk of surgical strikes inside Iran? Is a strike on their facilities imminent?
    ~Hugh

  • GME says:

    Thanks to Mr. Roggio for this news and the background that makes it required reading today. I am so glad to hear that it is the Iraqi forces that have taken the bull by the horns, with Lt. Gen Austin’s comments serving as official recognition of the progress made by the Iraqi military.
    The scholarship and backgrounding of events is what makes LWJ so worthwhile. I know that Ronald Reagon Jr. is plugged into your reports, and it would behoove other well-known commentators to cite your reports. LWJ should get the credit it deserves as the best resource for important developments in the Long War.

  • trac says:

    EXCELLENT ARTICLE ON THE ATTEMPTS BY IRAN TO DESTABILIZE IRAQ. Kudos for the rat lines presentation. Finally, word is getting out!

  • Rhyno327 says:

    I don’t believe there will be any overt strike against Iran. The US may be acting covertly, but a overt air-strike would have to involve hundreds of warplanes, not only to destroy thier nuclear program but to cripple thier ability to retaliate. The Iranians and thier Shia partners in Iraq will destabilize the country eventually.

  • David M says:

    The Thunder Run has linked to this post in the blog post From the Front: 02/06/2009 News and Personal dispatches from the front and the home front.

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