In a tactical shift, Iran becomes a new loyal elite among Iraqi militias


BAGHDAD, May 20 (Reuters) – Iran has selected hundreds of trusted fighters from among the cadre of its most powerful allies in the militias in Iraq, forming smaller, elitist and fiercely loyal factions, moving away from the large groups with which it once exerted influence.

The new secret groups were formed last year in drone warfare, surveillance and online propaganda and respond directly to officers of the Iranian force Quds, the branch of its Revolutionary Guards (IRGC) that controls its allied militias abroad.

They are responsible for a series of increasingly sophisticated attacks against the United States and its allies, according to testimony from Iraqi security officials, militia commanders and Western diplomatic and military sources.

The tactics reflect Iran’s response to setbacks – especially the death of military mastermind and Force leader Quds Qassem Soleimani, who tightly controlled the Iraqi Shiite militia until he was killed last year by a strike American drone missile.

His successor, Esmail Ghaani, was not as familiar with Iraq’s domestic politics and never wielded the same influence over the militia as Soleimani.

Large pro-Iranian Iraqi militias were also forced to keep a low profile after a public backlash led to huge mass protests against Iranian influence in late 2019. They were plagued by divisions. https: //www.reuters.com/article/us-iraq-militias/fractures-grow-among-ir … after Soleimani’s death and viewed by Iran as becoming more difficult to control.

But moving to smaller groups also brings tactical advantages. They are less prone to infiltration and could prove to be more effective in deploying the latest techniques Iran has developed to strike its enemies, such as armed drones.

“The new factions are directly linked to the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps,” an Iraqi security official said. “They take their orders from them, not from any Iraqi side.”

The account was confirmed by a second Iraqi security official, three commanders of larger and publicly active pro-Iranian militias, an Iraqi government official, a Western diplomat and a Western military source.

“The Iranians seem to have formed new groups of individuals chosen with the utmost care to carry out attacks and maintain total secrecy,” said one of the pro-Iran militia commanders. “We don’t know who they are.”

Iraqi security officials said at least 250 fighters traveled to Lebanon for several months in 2020, where advisers to the Iranian IRGCs and the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah trained them to fly drones, fire rockets. , to plant bombs and to publicize the attacks on social networks.

“The new groups are working in secret and their leaders, who are unknown, answer directly to IRGC officers,” one of the Iraqi security officials said.

Iraqi security officials and Western sources said the new groups were behind attacks, including against US-led forces at Iraqi Ain al-Asad air base this month. , at Erbil International Airport in April and against Saudi Arabia in January, all using drones loaded with explosives. .

These attacks caused no casualties but alarmed Western military officials for their sophistication.

Iranian officials and Iraqi government officials, pro-Iran militias and the US military did not respond to requests for comment on the matter. The US State Department said it was unable to comment.

BATTLE WITH WASHINGTON

Iran is the main Shiite Muslim power in the Middle East, and its influence over Iraq, the largest Shiite-majority country in the Arab world, is one of the main means by which it is expanding its influence in the region.

He has played an influential role in Iraq with the United States since American forces overthrew Sunni Muslim dictator Saddam Hussein in 2003, giving more power to the Iraqi Shiites.

After Islamic State fighters invaded a third of Iraqi territory in 2014, Washington and Tehran found themselves on the same side, both helping the Shiite-led government defeat Sunni Muslim militants over the next three years. .

Soleimani among the Iraqi militias.  Undated

The United States, which withdrew from Iraq in 2011, returned thousands of troops.

Iran, meanwhile, has supported large militia groups such as Kataib Hezbollah, Kataib Sayyed al-Shuhada and Asaib Ahl al-Haqq, each capable of deploying thousands of armed fighters and enjoying quasi-official status to help fight the Islamic State.

But after Soleimani’s death and with protesters turning against groups publicly linked to Iran, officials in Tehran became suspicious of some of the militias they had promoted and became less supportive, according to the officials. militia commanders.

“They (Iran) believed that the leaks from one of the groups contributed to Soleimani’s death, and they saw divisions over personal interests and power among them,” one said. . Another said: “The meetings and communications between us and the Iranians have diminished. We no longer have regular meetings and they have stopped inviting us to Iran.

Iraqi security officials, a government official and the three militia commanders all said the Quds Force began separating trusted operatives from the main factions months after Soleimani’s death.

The shift from supporting mass movements to resorting to smaller, more tightly controlled cadres reflects a strategy Iran has previously pursued: at the height of the US occupation of Iraq in 2005-2007, Tehran created cells that have proven to be particularly effective at deploying sophisticated bombs to pierce American armor.

DIPLOMATIC REOPENING

Since President Joe Biden came to power, Tehran has reopened diplomatic channels with Washington and Riyadh. One of its main sources of influence in these talks is its power to strike at enemies.

The drones his allies now use for attacks are much more difficult to defend and detect than regular rocket fire, increasing the danger to the 2,500 remaining US troops in Iraq.

General Kenneth McKenzie, head of the US Central Command, said in April after the Erbil attack that Iran had made “significant achievements” with its investments in drones.

Last year previously unknown groups began to claim responsibility following rocket and roadside bomb attacks. Western officials and academic reports have often referred to these new groups as fronts for Kataib Hezbollah or other familiar militias. But Iraqi sources said they are genuinely separate and operate independently.

“Under (Soleimani’s successor) Ghaani, they are trying to create groups with a few hundred men from here and elsewhere, supposedly loyal only to the Quds Force, a new generation,” the government official said. Iraqi.


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