US releases Iranian Qods Force agents

The US military recently released five Iranian Qods Force agents who had posed as diplomats and were detained in northern Iraq in late 2006. The Iranian agents were released to the Iraqi government, which is expected to promptly turn them back over to Iran.

In January 2007, the five Iranian agents were detained by US forces in the Kurdish city of Irbil. Iran claimed the men were part of a diplomatic mission in Irbil, and protested the arrest. The men were operating from a liaison office that did not enjoy diplomatic privileges, however.

The US military accused the five Iranians of being Qods Force agents assigned to help support Shia terror groups inside Iraq.

“The five detainees are connected to the Iranian Revolutionary Guard – Qods Force (IRGC-QF), an organization known for providing funds, weapons, improvised explosive device technology and training to extremist groups attempting to destabilize the Government of Iraq and attack Coalition forces,” noted Multinational Forces Iraq in press release announcing the arrest in mid-January 2007.

Now these Qods Force agents have been released to the Iraqi government and will be turned over to the embassy in Baghdad, according to Ambassador Hassan Kazemi Qomi.

“The five Iranian diplomats abducted in Iraq were handed over by the occupying US forces to the Iraqi prime minister (Nuri al-Maliki),” Qomi said.

Qomi himself had been accused of being a Qods Force agent by General David Petraeus back in November 2007 while he commander of Multinational Forces Iraq. Petraeus now heads US Central Command.

The campaign against Iran’s terror network in Iraq kicked off with the capture of Iranian agents in Baghdad in December 2006 and the detention of the Qods Force agents in Irbil the following month. The US and Iraqi militaries cracked down hard on the Ramazan Corps, the command set up by Qods Force to direct operations inside Iraq. The campaign culminated in a major operation led by the Iraqi security forces to dismantle the Iranian-backed Mahdi Army and allied Special Groups in Baghdad and central and southern Iraq.

The recent release of the Irbil Five, as they came to be known, was preceded by the release last month of Laith Qazali, the brother of Qais Qazali.

Qais Qazali was the commander of the Qazali network, which is better known as the Asaib al Haq, or the League of the Righteous. Qais was a spokesman and senior aide to Mahdi Army leader Muqtada al Sadr. The terror group, which was part of the Mahdi Army until the spring of 2008, has received extensive financial and military support from Iran’s Qods Force.

The League of the Righteous was directly implicated by General David Petraeus as being behind the January 2007 attack on the Provincial Joint Coordination Center in Karbala, as well as other high-profile terror attacks in Iraq. Five US soldiers were killed during the Karbala attack and subsequent kidnapping attempt. After US and Iraqi security forces closed in on the assault team, the terrorists executed the five US soldiers.

Laith was later released as part of negotiations to free five British contractors taken captive by Qais’ group shortly after their leader had been detained. The League of the Righteous responded to Laith’s release by turning over the bodies of two of the hostages and demanding the return of all of the group’s leadership before releasing any other captives. The two hostages were murdered months before their bodies were turned over to the British.

As power is transferred back to the Iraqi government, the US will continue to release the Iranian and Hezbollah agents captured in Iraq.

US intelligence officials who directly deal with the Iranian threat in Iraq are dismayed by the release of the Qods Force agents, and say the release of more is in the pipeline.

“If you didn’t like the release of Laith and the Irbil Five, you’d better get used to it,” one official told The Long War Journal in disgust.

“We worked hard to catch these bastards, now we’re cutting them loose with little thought to the consequences of doing this.”

Background on 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 inside Iraq, 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 found ample documentation as well as Iranian-made and Iranian-supplied weapons.

Since late 2006, US and Iraqi forces have captured and killed several high-level Qods Force officers inside Iraq. 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, which is better known as the Asaib al Haq or the League of the Righteous. a href=””>Azhar al Dulaimi, one of Qazali’s senior tactical commanders, was killed in Iraq in early 2007.

Since mid-October 2008, Iraqi and US forces have killed one Qods Force operative and captured 14 during raids throughout southern and central Iraq.

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. Qods Force helped to build the Mahdi Army along the same lines as Lebanese Hezbollah. Iran denies the charges, but captive Shia terrorists admit to having been recruited by Iranian agents and then transported into Iran for training.

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

US military officers believe that Iran has been ramping up its operations inside Iraq since 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.

Iranian-backed Shia terror groups in 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.

Sadr loyalist Qais Qazali was commander of the League of the Righteous up until his capture in 2007. The group 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 the Qods Force. 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. Earlier this year Sadr issued a message rejecting the US-Iraqi security agreement and 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 Hezbollah Brigades, or Kata’ib Hezbollah, has been active in and around Baghdad for more than a year. The terror group has increased its profile by conducting attacks against US and Iraqi forces, using the deadly explosively-formed penetrator land mines and improvised rocket-assisted mortars, which have been described as flying improvised explosive devices. The Hezbollah Brigades has posted videos of these attacks on the Internet.

The terror group is an offshoot of the Iranian-trained Special Groups, the US military said last summer. Hezbollah Brigades receives funding, training, logistics, guidance, and material support from the Qods Force.

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.

In July 2009, General David Petraeus, the commanding officer of US Central Command, said Iran continued to back the Special Groups during an interview at the World Affairs Council’s Global Leadership Series in Seattle.

“There is no question that Iran continues to fund, train, equip, and direct to varying degrees some of the groups still active in Iraq,” Petraeus said.

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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  • Render says:

    So we can now expect delivery of three more British contractors dead bodies?
    That doesn’t sound like a very fair trade to me.
    How about we send a couple of (Quds) bodies back instead?

  • Rosario says:

    This is a very disturbing news. Our US military members are showing much restraint and discipline. We need to get our regular troops out of harms way and let the Iraqi’s learn by dealing with the consequences of their leader’s actions.

  • doug says:

    Bill, here is an interesting article on the wariness of the top AQ guys about our improving intel in the AFPAK theater..

  • Tom says:

    So why bother even going over there if our own leaders are going to do this. Really, why not CUT AND RUN now and give Iraq to Iran? After all, they have won!

  • David M says:

    The Thunder Run has linked to this post in the blog post From the Front: 07/10/2009 News and Personal dispatches from the front and the home front.

  • This is just shameful. If this is the position of the new administration, to let people responsible for the deaths of US soldiers go free for “political” purposes, then we are in very deep trouble. Also, what signal does this send to Iran? What does this do for our credibility in the region? How do you think the other Gulf States, who all admire and respect power, will react to this news? This makes the United States, as well as the new Iraqi government, look very weak. This action will come back to haunt us, I’m sure of it.

  • Tyler says:

    Hate to break it to some people, but this was always probably going to be the end game. Save for maybe some of the more dangerous foreign Al Qaeda prisoners, Iraqis are going to be taking custody of all the prisoners currently in our care.
    We’re not taking them with us as we leave. What Iraqis do with them after they got them is their business.
    I’m much more worried about what happens as we transfer custody of Sunni prisoners. The tribesmen and former Baathists with strong links to the Sunnis who lead the Awakening. If they’re brutalized once in Iraqi hands, we’re gonna have problems.

  • 13times says:

    US Army Brig. Gen. Dave Quantock heads Taskforce 134, charged with detainee command and control in Iraq.”
    “Iraq’s foreign minister, Hoshyar Zebari, called the release a “good initiative” that could encourage dialogue between the U.S. and Iran, longtime foes.”

  • Schmedlap says:

    “If you didn’t like the release of Laith and the Irbil Five, you’d better get used to it,” one official told The Long War Journal in disgust.
    “We worked hard to catch these bastards, now we’re cutting them loose with little thought to the consequences of doing this.”

    I find it difficult to believe that we haven’t carefully considered the consequences. How high or low in the hierarchy is this official? Uniformed or civilian? Assuming that the individual is privy to the deliberations, does “little thought” actually mean “little thought” or does it mean “I disagree”? Often times, when uttered in disgust, it means the latter.

  • Neo says:

    I’m not sure I would call this an end game, but Tyler’s statement is at least partly true. We are in the process of drawing down in Iraq, and part of that process involves gradually unloading many of our regional entanglements and institutional obligations. As applies to this, we are either turning prisoners over to Iraqi authorities or unloading them.
    The Iraqi government doesn’t want to hold Iranian prisoners at a time when they are trying to rid itself of any entanglements with Iran. I doubt this leads to much in the way of constructive “dialogue”

  • Rhyno327 says:

    So, in other words, Iranian agents can now act with impunity, knowing they will be released after they get arrested. As said above, the real winners in all this is Iran. Maybe next time US operators will opt to NOT arrest them. DISGRACE.

  • C. says:

    Well i suppose we can finally feel relieved that some of us were right about Iran’s involvement in Iraq! Bout time. Now it is official that we are involved in a low intensity conflict with the Revolutionary Guard representing the right wing extremist’s of the country. We also know with fair certainty that Iran’s power brokers ensured that they control all arms of government. I would have to say that the embargo’s are having an affect on events in Iran or we would not have seen the events unfold with the protests. Only it is not enough, with all that in mind the question still remains…What to do? the answer to this riddle still eludes me. I will say though that holding out an olive branch while pointing a gun at their heads is acceptable to me.

  • E says:

    Good article, but one correction. Mahmud Farhadi was not a member of the Irbil 5. The quiet release of him, amidst the Irbil guys, is huge. At least according to open-press reporting, he was the most senior QF officer that we had caught (and been able to hang onto). He was a huge bargaining chip that just walked out the door.


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