Iran’s Strategic Victory: Hezbollah-ized Iraq

By Gary A. Grappo.

 

As with Hezbollah in Lebanon, Iran is creating an independent pro-Iranian organization in Iraq, ensuring that its interests in its unstable neighbor are well protected.

Three years after America’s withdrawal, nearly 4,600 American lives lost and one trillion dollars spent, where is Iraq headed? The ultra-extremist terrorist organization, the Islamic State, aka ISIS or ISIL, invaded the country virtually unopposed, seized the major towns of western Iraq, Fallujah and Ramadi, and sent the US-trained Iraqi army fleeing from Iraq’s second largest city of Mosul.

The answer might be toward another Lebanon. That Middle Eastern nation underwent its own bloody 15-year civil war (1975-1989) before the warring factions realized there could be no single winner. They reached an agreement, known as the Ta’if Agreement after the Saudi city where it was negotiated, that essentially rendered the country almost ungovernable but brought about peace.

The agreement called for the disarming of all militias. But Syria permitted Hezbollah’s continued operation, effectively legitimizing over time this state-within-a-state apparatus, independent of Lebanese government control. That included its heavily armed and well-trained combat arm. The fig leaf for allowing such an armed group not under direct state control – in contravention to the laws of most other states – was that it was a “resistance movement” defending Lebanon against Israel.

With $100-60 million in funding annually from Iran as well as virtually all its weapons, considerable military training and intelligence assistance, Hezbollah has become Iran’s vanguard against not only Israel, on whose northern border it comfortably sits, but also the West.

Its rap sheet is long and well known, inter alia:  a mini-war and other armed actions against Israel 2000-2006; terrorist attacks against the Israeli embassy and a Jewish cultural center in Buenos Aires, the US embassy and Marine barracks in Beirut, and Khobar Towers US airmen’s barracks in Saudi Arabia; and the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri. It is a listed terrorist organization by the US, the EU, Canada, Australia, the UK, the GCC and the Netherlands.

Its importance to Iran became critical after the launch of the Syrian civil war in early 2011 when it joined the forces of Bashar al-Assad’s pro-Iranian regime against his hydra-like opposition, including ISIS. Working with Iranian advisers and commanders, Hezbollah ventured outside Lebanon, thus putting the lie to its claim of a resistance movement against Israel. Hezbollah has become a proxy combat unit – and a well-motivated and trained one – of the Islamic Republic of Iran, on call for deployment to Syria, Iraq and elsewhere.

In Iraq, Shia militia organizations mobilized quickly following last summer’s lightning strikes of ISIS and the consequent, fatwa-like call to arms by the nation’s most influential figure, Grand Ayatollah Ali Al Sistani. These militias are well familiar to US troops and diplomats who served there 2002-2011:  the Badr Brigades, Asa’ib Ahl Al Haq (League of the Righteous), Kata’ib Hezbollah (Hezbollah Battalions), the Mahdi Army and two dozen others. They sprang headlong into the fight with little training or experience since battling American and Iraqi forces in 2004-2009.

When America hesitated to respond to the Iraqi government’s plea for assistance to blunt ISIS, Iran responded almost instantly, dispatching weapons, ammunition, equipment, trainers and even senior commanders to help plan operations. Unable to contain the mass movement of Iraq’s Shia, Iraq’s parliament legitimized their existence under the innocuous title of Hashid Al-Shaabi, Popular Mobilization (PM), approving $60 million in funding for their various forces. Meanwhile, approval of its Sunni-oriented National Guard equivalent continues to languish.

Like Lebanon’s Hezbollah, PM militias have become a proxy organization for Iran. Why?

First, their command structure is comprised of a triumvirate of dedicated Iran loyalists: Qais al-Khazali, commander of Asa’ib Ahl Al Haq; Abu Mahdi al-Mohandas, aka “The Engineer”, Kata’ib Hezbollah’s commander (both not coincidentally on the State Department’s terrorist list); and Badr Organization chief, Iraqi parliamentarian and Minister of Transportation Hadi al Amri, probably Iran’s most loyal Iraqi ally. Al Amri fought alongside the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps against Saddam’s forces in the 1980-1988 Iran-Iraq war. Their organizations have received considerable Iranian assistance, both during the years of the US occupation and the Saddam period.

They are close to Major General Qasim Suleimani, the commander of Iran’s elite combat and spy organization, the Al Quds Force, who has been seen at the battle front repeatedly in Iraq. Suleimani coordinates the disparate PM militias to ensure their efforts are unified and don’t conflict.

Second, thanks to Iranian support, these Shia militias have already asserted primacy on the battlefield over Iraq’s national armed forces, especially in the fight against ISIS. They did so last summer near Irbil, Kurdistan and also in areas outside Baghdad.

In the largest Iraqi campaign to date against ISIS, the current operation to retake Tikrit, Saddam Hussein’s hometown, the Popular Mobilization forces are in the lead. Two-thirds of the 30,000 Iraqi forces in the Tikrit campaign come from the PM forces, notably joined by veteran troops from Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps with artillery, rocket launchers and surveillance drones. Suleimani oversees it. There is no US or coalition presence.

Third, the size, relative role and effectiveness of the Popular Mobilization forces exceed those of Iraq’s national forces. The PM forces number some 120,000 volunteers, compared to the Iraqi army’s depleted force of barely 50,000. (By comparison, Lebanon’s ground forces number some 50,000 and Lebanese Hezbollah’s 8,000-12,000 volunteers.) As with Hezbollah, the PM forces depend heavily on Iran for weapons, training, intelligence and operational guidance.

Iraq’s PM forces are not answerable to the government or the national armed forces command structure, though nominally subject to Iraq’s armed forces command.

All successes realized to date by the Iraqis against ISIS have been the result of either Shia PM militias or the militias fighting alongside Kurdish fighters in the north. The US is helping to re-train Iraq’s armed forces, who have been engaged against ISIS sporadically – and almost always with US or coalition air support – but are not expected to be ready for major combat until later this spring or summer.

The lack of an effective Iraqi government and armed forces response to ISIS has provided Iran with the opportunity to replicate a Hezbollah-like model in Iraq: a proxy organization inside the borders of an Arab neighbor and once archenemy.

It ensures for years, if not decades, that Iran will have political as well as military operatives in Iraq answerable to Tehran. When ISIS is driven from Iraq, the PM forces will surely remain, maintaining their military presence and undoubtedly prepared to assert even greater political power. It will weaken Iraq’s still feeble democratic process, institutionalize sectarianism, and, as in Lebanon, relegate Iraq’s armed forces to secondary status.

The presence of the Popular Mobilization forces, answering to Iran, in the Middle East’s most vital and vulnerable area is an unprecedented realignment of forces in the region and, for the US and its Arab allies, a challenge to regional security and stability never envisioned. It is Iran’s most significant strategic victory to date.

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