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The Intricate Web of Iranian Military Involvement in Iraq


On Jamestown Kata’ib Hezbollah and the Intricate Web of Iranian Military Involvement in Iraq By: Thomas Strouse
It is no secret that Iran’s influence runs deep in Iraq. Most Iraqi politicians with close ties to Iran, however, are wary of tarnishing their nationalist credentials by admitting that they prefer to cooperate with Iran rather than the United States, in part because of growing anti-Iranian sentiment in Iraq.

Beginning in late 2006, the leaders of the Sunni Awakening Movement openly aligned themselves with the U.S. military in an eventually successful campaign against terrorist groups in their midst. With a few notable exceptions, Iraqis who have aligned themselves with Iran against the U.S. in Iraq seek to keep their ties with Iran hidden.

While Iran’s influence comes in a variety of forms, its covert support for armed militias in Iraq is the source of much speculation. The United States has cited financing, training, and arming of Shi’a militant groups as elements of Iran’s “nefarious” conduct in Iraq (Congressional Research Service, June 4, 2009).

Iran’s military assistance to armed groups outside of Iran is run by its Quds Force, a branch of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC). The IRGC was established to defend the Islamic Revolution and cut its teeth during the Iran-Iraq War, fighting Iraqi forces on the frontlines and backing “fifth columns” throughout the region. The Quds Force was also tasked with propagating the Islamic Revolution beyond Iran’s borders. Its most notable success to date has been Lebanon’s Hezbollah. The Quds Force supported and trained anti-Saddam Iraqi militias, including those associated with Iraq’s main Shi’a political parties now holding power in Iraq. These now-mainstream Shi’a political parties disbanded their militias or integrated them into the Iraqi security forces in order to participate in the U.S.-sponsored political process, but the Quds Force has continued to support new armed militias in Iraq. The role of these militias has been described in the West as the “tip of Iran’s spear.”

The commander in charge of the Quds Force is Brigadier General Qassem Suleimani. Little is known about Suleimani, but his influence in Iraq became visibly clear when he brokered an end to the fighting between Muqtada al-Sadr’s Jaish al-Mahdi and Iraqi security forces in March 2008 (McClatchy, April 28, 2008). Sadr was the last of Iraq’s leading Shi’a leaders to ostensibly disband his party’s militia, which was established only months after the U.S. invasion, unlike other Shi’a militias that had been nurtured in Iran by the Quds Force during Saddam’s reign.

Kata’ib Hezbollah (Brigades of the Party of God) is one Baghdad-based Shi’a militant group that has been accused of being a surrogate of Iran’s Quds Force in Iraq. While not the most powerful or the best known, the group is described by the United States as an Iran-backed militant group that actively smuggles and stockpiles Iranian-made weapons in Iraq.

On February 12, U.S. and Iraqi security forces led a mission targeting Kata’ib Hezbollah in Iraq’s Maysan province. The joint raid took place in rural villages near the Iranian border. At least five people were reportedly killed and some 22 suspected members of the group were arrested. Following the raid, the U.S. military said that there had been “a recent increase in lethal aid smuggling facilitated by members of Kata’ib Hezbollah, who then stockpile weapons and explosives in Iraqi communities for future attacks” (United States Forces – Iraq, Press Release USF-1, February 12).

Between March 2007 and June 2008, Kata’ib Hezbollah led a number of attacks against U.S. forces in Iraq (U.S. Treasury Department, Press Release TG-195, July 2, 2009). Throughout 2008, Al-Manar, Hezbollah’s television outlet in Lebanon, played numerous videos of Kata’ib Hezbollah launching rocket and roadside bomb attacks against U.S. troops. This helped put Kata’ib Hezbollah on the map among leading Shi’a militant groups. In December 2009, it was reported that the group had successfully hacked into U.S. Predator drone video feeds, presumably enabling its members to monitor and evade U.S. military operations (Army Times, December 21, 2009).

While the leadership of Kata’ib Hezbollah remains murky, one individual reportedly associated with the group is an Iraqi by the name of Jamal Ja’far Muhammad, but well-known in Iraq as Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis (a.k.a. The Engineer). He has been described as the “right-hand man” of Qassem Suleimani, the head of Iran’s Quds Force (Sharqiyah TV, January 2). Al-Muhandis is wanted in Kuwait for his alleged role in the 1983 bombings of the American and French embassies in Kuwait City, as well as for his alleged involvement in the assassination attempt on the Kuwaiti Emir in 1985—both deemed to be Quds Force attempts to deter U.S., French, and Kuwaiti support for Iraq in its war with Iran. The U.S. Treasury Department designated Kata’ib Hezbollah and Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis as threats to the stability of Iraq in July 2009 (U.S. Treasury Department, Press Release TG-195, July 2, 2009).

Despite these allegations, al-Muhandis has been a member of the Iraqi parliament since March 2006 as part of the main Shi’a bloc, the United Iraqi Alliance (Al-Adala, November 8, 2005). He is running again in the March 7 election as part of the Iraqi National Alliance. Despite holding a seat in parliament for the past four years, he does not attend the parliament’s sessions and spends much of his time in Tehran. Prior to 2003, he lived in Iran for about 20 years. In an interview on Iraqi television on January 26, al-Muhandis said that he has come under threats by the United States and has basically decided to wait out the withdrawal of American troops (Al-Sharqiyah TV, January 26). Iraq’s Constitution provides all members of parliament with total immunity, which can only be lifted by the consent of an absolute majority of the parliament.

Muhandis, 56, joined the Da’wa Party in the early 1970s and left Iraq for Kuwait later that decade, working in Kuwait City as an engineer. Following the 1983 bombings, he fled Kuwait for Iran. He joined SCIRI in 1985 and became a senior leader in its Badr Brigade, which fought against Saddam during the Iran-Iraq War under the guidance of the IRGC (Al-Sharqiyah TV, January 26).

Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis is not the only Iraqi political figure to align himself so closely with Iran’s Quds Force, but he is one of few who openly admits it. His ability to maintain one hand in Iraq’s parliament and another in Iran’s Quds Force and its involvement with Shi’a militant groups such as Kata’ib Hezbollah is a clear manifestation of the intricate and tangled web of Iraq-Iran relations.
I do hope the friends of Qom get stuffed in the Iraqi election, the Iranians may have overplayed their a hand with al-Lamii and Chalabi's de-Baathfication antics and Saudis have been pumping cash in as they did in Lebanon so this may not be in vain.

Jamestown also has No Place Like Home: Iraq’s Refugee Crisis Threatens the Future of Iraq By: Rachel Schneller
The massive upheaval of Iraq’s population that has occurred since 2006 threatens the long-term stability of the country, regardless of short-term gains achieved through the political process or military surges. Symptomatic of a destabilized Iraq, displaced populations are themselves a source of future destabilization. Many Middle Eastern countries experienced instability resulting from Palestinians displaced after the establishment of Israel in 1948, the last refugee crisis of comparable proportions in the region. Problems originating from the Palestinian refugee crisis continue today, and the wheels of a new refugee crisis have been set in motion with over four million of Iraq’s original 26 million inhabitants displaced since 2003, representing about 20 percent of its pre-war population. [1] An estimated two million Iraqi refugees now reside predominantly in Syria and Jordan, and an additional estimated 1.6 million are internally displaced persons (IDPs). [2]

Iraq has a long history of migration both inside and outside of the country. Under Saddam, Shi’a Arabs and Kurds fled to Iran to escape oppression. The Ba’athist regime actively attempted to alter the demographics of the predominantly Kurdish north and the Shi’a south. In 2003, Iraqis of all ethnicities and religions temporarily fled the general violence of the U.S.-led military intervention. But the displacement that has occurred since the February 2006 bombing of the Samarra mosque affected all of Iraq’s different groups in unprecedented proportions, altering the demographic fabric of the nation for the foreseeable future. [3] Sunnis fled Shi’a-dominated areas for predominantly Sunni provinces or went abroad; Shi’a fled Sunni provinces for predominantly Shi’a provinces or abroad; Arabs evacuated Kurdish areas of Iraq and Christians have largely left the country altogether (Al-Sabah, January 16). [4] As an unintended consequence of the U.S. invasion, Iraqis of all ethnic and religious backgrounds who have worked for Coalition forces have been targeted for assassination.

A local “brain drain” has particularly affected Iraq because those with education and resources are more capable of leaving the country and setting up residence abroad. The less fortunate have been left to fend as best they can inside Iraq. The end result is an Iraqi population that has a greater proportion of young, inexperienced, poorly educated religious and political extremists than otherwise would have been the case. With a large portion of Iraq’s well-educated middle class now living in Jordan, rebuilding Iraq will be even more difficult (Aswat al-Iraq, July 1, 2009). [5]

Refugees Fuel Insurgencies

Less than ten percent of Iraq’s displaced have returned to their original homes in Iraq. [6] The vast majority, however, remain in neighboring Syria and Jordan with no plans to return to a still-volatile Iraq and return becomes less likely with each passing year (Aswat al-Iraq, January 2). Host countries resist granting permanent residency status to refugees and likely will remain firm on this position. [7] Concerns related to the history of displaced Palestinian Arabs and economic conditions in these same countries will deter Syria and Jordan from accepting Iraqi refugees as legal residents. Refugee children remain largely outside the education system, which will make unemployment a growing problem in the future as they mature and attempt to enter the local labor pool with few marketable skills. Even well-educated Iraqi adults work tenuously in grey markets, subject to exploitation and deportation. [8]

Only a small percentage of the approximate two million Iraqi refugees will be resettled in third countries. As the largest resettlement destination for Iraqi refugees, the U.S. took in 33,000 Iraqi refugees from 2003 to 2009, a tiny portion of the overall 2 million Iraqi refugees. [9] European nations, which accepted thousands of Iraqi refugees from 2003-2008, are indicating they will no longer resettle Iraqis, even forcibly repatriating some Iraqi asylum-seekers (Aswat al-Iraq. October 17, 2009).

Even if the United States could increase the number of Iraqi refugees it resettles to more adequately address the Iraq refugee crisis (which is unlikely in the current economic downturn), many Iraqis do not wish to be resettled outside of the Middle East and do not register with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), the first step toward resettlement. Caught between two unappealing options, many Iraqis choose the least-worst alternative and remain in semi-legal status in neighboring countries rather than face the lengthy and complicated process of resettling in the United States or Europe, both viewed as hostile and discriminatory toward Arabs. [10] The large numbers of Iraqi refugees concentrated in Amman, Damascus and a few other locations in the Middle East are creating social support networks. Resettlement in the United States, on the other hand, can result in social isolation and extreme poverty because of a lack of adequate support for refugees. [11]

The large “grey” Iraqi population emerging in the Middle East, tolerated but not integrated, is likely to grow in the coming years. As with Palestinian refugees after 1948, stateless Iraqis will become a population ripe for fueling future insurgencies in Iraq and the region. Eventually, Iraqi refugees will seek residency rights through local integration, diminishing resettlement possibilities, or returning to Iraq, either voluntarily or through forced repatriation. All of these options will be complex and probably violent. Host countries may choose to expel or deport Iraqi refugees rather than set a precedent for granting permanent residency rights to other displaced Arabs in the region. The future Iraqi government, likely to be dominated by religious Shi’a political parties, is unlikely to welcome an influx of Sunnis and moderates who could challenge their authority. [12]

Iraqi refugees are already fueling insurgent activity in Iraq. Among the first to flee Iraq after the initial U.S. invasion were Ba’athists who took refuge in Syria and Jordan (Aswat al-Iraq, September 28, 2009). The Iraqi government accuses Ba’athist residents abroad of insurgent activity and blames them for the spate of terrorist bombings targeting Iraqi government institutions in late 2009. Iraq has also accused Syria of harboring Ba’athist terrorists; an allegation Syria adamantly rejects (Aswat al-Iraq, September 28, 2009). Further tensions between Baghdad and Damascus threaten the already fragile status of Iraqi refugees in Syria, as Syria could expel all illegal Iraqi residents to retaliate against Baghdad’s accusations.

IDPs Worse Off than Refugees

IDPs in Iraq face challenges similar to those of the refugees, but without assistance from international organizations or the option of resettlement to safer countries. IDPs encounter obstacles enrolling their children in new schools, registering for public benefits, accessing health care and finding jobs. Many Iraqi IDPs are not able to access government services in their new provinces because the Iraqi government either has not been able to mobilize programs for IDPs or because the distribution of the resources available for IDPs is divided along sectarian lines, favoring the Shi’a population. [13] In the absence of central government assistance, sectarian militias have stepped into the arena. Shi’a militia groups provide resources for displaced Shi’a; Sunni militias provide similar services for displaced Sunnis, providing basic food and fuel and assistance in settling in homes abandoned by other displaced Iraqis, setting the stage for future violent property disputes divided between sectarian groups. Indeed, property restitution will likely be among the most intractable of the long-term problems facing Iraq in the future. [14] Even if IDPs successfully integrate into their new communities, the majority will not willingly give up all rights to their former properties and will seek restitution or compensation once conditions in Iraq have improved.

Because they are still in Iraq, IDPs must also deal with Iraq’s high levels of crime and violence. Indeed, many IDPs would probably prefer to leave Iraq for destinations where job prospects would be better and violence levels lower. However, IDPs lack sufficient financial resources and social networks to leave the country and support themselves abroad. IDPs are a population ripe for recruitment by insurgents and militias as, having fled violence, they are focused on security and view participation in armed groups as one of the only options for defending themselves and their families against future attacks. Both Sunnis and Shi’a who have been internally displaced are joining local militias and insurgent groups, as these are the only employment opportunities available. [15]

Of those refugees returning to Iraq from abroad, the large majority become part of the IDP population. [16] These refugees do not return to their original homes, but rather seek new homes where they will not be a target for sectarian violence. [17] Sunnis who fled to places abroad from Basra in 2006, for example, are unlikely to return to Basra and instead will likely seek new homes in regions where Sunnis are the majority. Over time, accumulated refugee returns to Iraq will intensify the division of the country along sectarian lines.

Demographic Warfare

The dynamic of Iraqi IDPs and refugees since 2006 has altered the demographic fabric of Iraq. The country in 2010 looks vastly different than it did before the Coalition invasion and the Samarra mosque bombing. Previously mixed Shi’a-Sunni neighborhoods are now almost entirely homogenous. Northern territories which used to house Kurds, Arabs, Turkomen, and other ethnicities are now less diverse, with Kurds claiming more area for the independent Kurdish region through tactics intended to chase away minorities.

One result may be greater regional stability, as ethnically homogenous populations more readily agree on social and political goals. Regional stability, however, will come at the cost of decreased national stability and greater fragility in relations between Iraq and its neighbors.

A homogenous Kurdish area will have less incentive to engage with Arabic-speaking areas of Iraq. A homogenous Shi’a region will have little incentive to listen to Sunni concerns, let alone make concessions to them. Ten years ago, many areas of Iraq were home to mixed populations of Kurds, Shi’a and Sunni who made the necessary political compromises to co-exist peacefully. The population displacement that has occurred in Iraq, however, has exacerbated sectarian and ethnic tensions and greatly decreased incentives for negotiation and compromise.

As demographically homogenous regions become stronger and more unified in their aspirations, the central government will become less capable of unifying the nation. Already, provincial governments have become more capable at exacting monetary tribute from the weak national government. In 2009, Baghdad bowed to Basra and the Kurdish Regional Government, according them one dollar per barrel of oil produced or refined. For each religious visitor, Najaf will receive a fee from the national government. National unity achieved through buying off provincial governments is tenuous, dependent on unstable oil prices in Iraq and a government struggling with corruption and inefficiency.

A national Iraqi census envisioned for late 2010 will reveal the extent to which the country has become divided (Aswat al-Iraq, August 31, 2009). This census is likely to be controversial, fraught with implementation challenges and marking a new phase of instability in Iraq. Determining the status of disputed territories such as Kirkuk will be linked to completing a census, which will reveal the demographic make-up of these highly sensitive areas. National elections slated for March 7 will also expose the extent to which Iraq has changed demographically since the 2005 elections, likely triggering further sectarian violence.

Repeating History

The Palestinian refugee crisis was a recipe for disaster, and history is now repeating itself with the current Iraqi crisis, which will likely set off decades of sectarian violence, insurgent and terrorist activity, and conflicts arising from reintegration efforts. The violence occurring in Iraq has the potential to spill over into neighboring countries, which also struggle with sectarian tensions between Shi’a and Sunni Arabs, Kurds, and Christians. For many Iraqis, going home is no longer an option, and even the displaced within Iraq who succeed in returning to their original geographic location will find a nation vastly changed and a government, perhaps more democratic, but less capable of ensuring national unity.


1. Exact figures- both of refugees and of Iraq’s pre-war population- do not exist and numbers are disputed by the government of Iraq and host countries. However, these figures are the ones most quoted by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and other organizations involved in the Iraq refugee and displacement crisis. See UNHCR Global Appeal 2009 Update (2009) and Elizabeth Ferris, The Looming Crisis: Displacement and Security in Iraq (Washington: The Brookings Institution, August 2008).
2. Younes, Kristele and Rosen, Nir. “Uprooted and Unstable,” Refugees International, April 2008. p.1; “IOM Emergency Needs Assessments Post February 2006 Displacement in Iraq,” International Organization for Migration, October 1, 2009.
3. “Assessment of Return to Iraq,” International Organization for Migration, November 3, 2009.
4. “Iraq’s Dangerous Trigger Line,” The Economist. February 11.
5. Fisher, Nathan. “The Iraqi Refugee Crisis Continues.”, June 30, 2009.
6. About 336,000 out of 1.6 million IDPs. “IOM Emergency Needs Assessments Post February 2006 Displacement in Iraq,” International Organization for Migration, October 1, 2009.
7. “Refugee Crisis in America,” Georgetown Law, October 7, 2009, p.13.
8. Ibid
9. Ibid
10. Ibid, pp. 15-19.
11. Ibid, pp. 25-33.
12. “Iraq: Preventing the point of no return,” Refugees International. April 7, 2009.
13. Kristele Younes and Nir Rosen, “Uprooted and Unstable,” Refugees International. April 2008, p. 5-6.
14. “Iraq: Preventing the point of no return,” Refugees International. April 7, 2009; “Assessment of Return to Iraq,” International Organization for Migration, November 3, 2009.
15. Younes and Rosen, op cit, pp.304.
16. The UNHCR found 70% of Iraqi refugees returning from Syria became internally displaced. See Younes and Rosen, op cit, p.14.
17. “Assessment of Return to Iraq,” International Organization for Migration. November 3, 2009; “Iraq: Preventing the point of no return,” Refugees International, April 7, 2009.
My bold, so much for draining the swamp.

The huge Iraqi refugee crisis is the most under reported consequence of the war. It was treated as an embarrassment and swept under the carpet during the Bush years. Barry has made no improvement on that short sighted policy, there are risks here that can at least be mitigated. New terrorist threats are already manifesting in Lebanon and Syria. Judging by the history of terrorism in the region it will be a couple of decades hence when we reap what we have sown.


Deborah Amos has written Eclipse of the Sunnis: Power, Exile, and Upheaval in the Middle East on the refugee crisis. She is interviewed in Special Abu Muqawama Q&A: Six Questions for Deb Amos
2. I want to ask you about the Iraqi refugee crisis in just a minute, but your book is about more than that. As eloquent as I found the prose inside the cover of your book, the title is a rather blunt, inelegant "Eclipse of the Sunnis". On the other hand, maybe that title says all that needs to be said. Is that the theme of this book? Are we seeing a seismic shift in power relations in the Arabic-speaking world? And how can that be so when Sunni Muslims still constitute such an overwhelming majority of the Arabic-speaking peoples?

When I first started writing the book I had a different title in mind. I was interested in the experience of exile and I wanted to use the opening line from a poem by Dante that expressed the pain of political banishment. “You shall leave everything you love most,” wrote Dante and it seemed to capture the complicated emotions of Iraqis who hated Saddam but were deeply tied to their culture and community. The title changed as I understood that the sectarian cleansing in Iraq had a wider implication. The majority of exiles and refugees are Sunni Arabs. Baghdad has had a demographic shift that is historic and seismic. Baghdad is now a Shiite capital which has an impact on the way power relations work in the country. Iraq’s Shiites won the sectarian war, the Sunnis lost. However, Iraq is not an island. As you correctly point out, Sunni Muslims still constitute an overwhelming majority in the region. Iraq’s Sunni neighbors see the resolution of the exile crisis as an indicator of Iraqi’s identity. An eclipse implies a phase. There will be no stability in Iraq until there is political reconciliation and power sharing. To quote an Iraqi political analyst, “The Kurds are only 20% of the population without a friend in the region, and they’ve managed to destabilize Iraq for 80 years. The Sunnis have friends in almost every neighboring capital.”

3. About a year ago, The Gamble by Tom Ricks came out and seemed to have as many detractors as admirers. I was one of the people who liked it, taking it for what it was, largely because I knew it was just one of many books that would be written about the events known as the "Surge" and that other books would soon be published telling the story of Iraq from the perspective of grunts, insurgents, and ordinary Iraqis. Tom Ricks has told me that he himself looks forward to reading those books. I think your book is, in some ways, a "Surge" book in that it speaks to the effects the war and especially the U.S.-led offensive of 2007 has had on ordinary Iraqis -- and especially those who came to be refugees. What do you think about the idea that your book -- meant to be a broader narrative of the region -- is in some ways also a book about the Iraq War and the Surge?

While the “Surge” is not the major focus of the book, I write about the Iraq war and the events that surround the surge from an Iraqi point of view. I felt it was a view missing from the war literature. I couldn’t be on the ground in Baghdad in 2007, but I was in Damascus during the troop build up. There were more Iraqis fleeing the country in 2007 than had left in 2006. In Damascus, the UN refugee center was packed each day. By interviewing the newcomers I could document the explosion of sectarian cleansing that took place as additional U.S. moved into Baghdad neighborhoods. For many Iraqis, the price of the surge was quite high and some are still paying. Tactically, the surge contributed to the dramatic drop in violence, strategically, the surge failed to spark a political reconciliation in Iraq. Which means the refugee crisis could be with us for some time to come.

4. You write, in your chapter on Lebanon, how the Palestinian refugee problem in that country is proof positive of what happens when refugee crises go unresolved. What do you see as the long-term effects of the Iraqi refugee crisis on the region?

First, I want to talk about important indicators. I believe the March 7th parliamentary elections will play a role in the refugee crisis. The outcome will determine whether there are wide spread returns. The Iraqi election commission expects that more than 160 thousand Iraqis to vote in the voting centers across Syria. Arab League poll watchers are going to be dispatched to monitor the vote. The refugee neighborhoods are papered with campaign posters and Iraq’s Sunni politicians are courting the exile vote including Tarek al Hashimi, Iraq’s Vice President. This is an unprecedented event. The exiles are part of a ‘virtual’ Iraq that exists beyond the borders. The election outcome could determine whether Iraqis remain in exile, a destabilizing population in the region, or return home. They will be watching for the signals of power-sharing and what the vote reveals about the strength of the sectarian fault lines.

5. What concrete steps should policy-makers -- U.S., international, regional, Iraqi -- take to address the refugee crisis?

A few years ago, when I started interviewing refugees and NGO’s in the region, a U.N. official estimated there would be about 100 thousand Iraqis that would not go back. The number has probably grown larger since then, but the list reflects the legacy of the past few years: those too traumatized to return, religious minorities still threatened, female headed households, and Iraqis who worked for the U.S. military. While the U.S. resettlement program has made great strides, the specific program for military translators is a failure. The number of Iraqis granted special visas is dismally low. The program needs some serious attention. As for the larger picture, donor fatigue is hampering UN programs that support refugees. The International community still has a role to play in funding programs in Jordan and Syria. The latest U.S. government report portrays an Iraqi population that has no hope of employment or integration in exile; their children are largely outside the education system. This is not good news for Iraq’s future. The Iraqi government’s policy towards exiles and the internally displaced seems to be one of willful neglect. The Obama administration must use any remaining clout to get the next Iraqi government to focus attention on this population.

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