Leaks shine light on Iran’s role as backer of Iraq’s Shi’ite militias
NEW YORK — On Dec. 22, 2006, US military officials in Baghdad issued a secret warning: The Shi’ite militia commander who had orchestrated the kidnapping of officials from Iraq’s Ministry of Higher Education was now hatching plans to take US soldiers hostage.
What made the warning especially worrying were intelligence reports saying that the Iraqi militant, Azhar al-Dulaimi, had been trained by the Middle East’s masters of the dark arts of paramilitary operations: the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps in Iran and Hezbollah, its Lebanese ally.
“Dulaymi reportedly obtained his training from Hizballah operatives near Qum, Iran, who were under the supervision of Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps Quds Force (IRGC-QF) officers in July 2006,’’ the report noted, using alternative spellings. Five months later, Dulaimi was killed in a US raid in the Shi’ite enclave of Sadr City in Baghdad, but not before four US soldiers had been abducted from an Iraqi headquarters in Karbala and killed in an operation that US officials say bore Dulaimi’s fingerprints.
Documents made public by WikiLeaks, which has disclosed classified information about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, provide a ground-level look, at least as seen by US units in the field and US military intelligence, at the shadow war between the Unites States and Iraqi militias backed by Iran’s Revolutionary Guards.
During the administration of President George W. Bush, critics charged that the White House had exaggerated Iran’s role to deflect criticism of its handling of the war and build support for a tough policy toward Iran, including the possibility of military action.
But the field reports disclosed by WikiLeaks, which were never intended to be made public, underscore the seriousness with which Iran’s role has been seen by the US military.
Citing the testimony of detainees, a captured militant’s diary, and uncovered arms caches, among other intelligence, the reports recount Iran’s role in providing Iraqi militia fighters with rockets, magnetic bombs that can be attached to cars, “explosively formed penetrators,’’ or EFPs, which are the most lethal type of roadside bomb in Iraq, and other weapons. Those include .50-caliber rifles and the Misagh-1, an Iranian replica of a Chinese surface-to-air missile, which, the reports say, was fired at American helicopters and downed one in Baghdad in July 2007.
Iraqi militants went to Iran to be trained as snipers and in the use of explosives, the reports assert, and the Quds Force collaborated with Iraqi extremists to encourage the assassination of Iraqi officials.
The reports make it clear that the lethal contest between Iranian-backed militias and US forces continued after President Obama tried to open a dialogue with Iran and reaffirmed the agreement between the United States and Iraq to withdraw US troops from Iraq by the end of 2011.
Established by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini after the 1979 Iranian revolution, the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps has expanded its influence under President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, a former member, and it plays an important role in Iran’s economy, politics, and security. The corps’ Quds Force, under Brigadier General Qassem Soleimani, has responsibility for foreign operations and has often worked though surrogates, like Hezbollah.
While some of the raw information in the reports cannot be verified, it is broadly consistent with other classified US intelligence and public accounts by military officials. As seen by current and former US officials, the Quds Force has two main objectives: to weaken and shape Iraq’s nascent government and to diminish the United States’ role in Iraq.
For people like Soleimani, “who went through all eight years of the Iran-Iraq war, this is certainly about poking a stick at us, but it is also about achieving strategic advantage in Iraq,’’ Ryan C. Crocker, the US ambassador in Iraq from 2007 to 2009, said.
“I think the Iranians understand that they are not going to dominate Iraq,’’ Crocker added, “but I think they are going to do their level best to weaken it, to have a weak central government that is constantly off balance, that is going to have to be beseeching Iran to stop doing bad things without having the capability to compel them to stop doing bad things. And that is an Iraq that will never again threaten Iran.’’
According to the reports, Iran’s role has been political as well as military. A report issued before Iraq’s December 2005 parliamentary elections cautioned that Iranian-backed militia members in the Iraqi government were gaining power and giving Iran influence over Iraqi politics.