Iran develops new Iraqi loyalist militias

Iran has selected hundreds of trusted fighters from among the cadre of its most powerful militia allies in Iraq, forming smaller, elitist and fiercely loyal factions, moving away from the large groups with which it once exerted influence. , Reuters reported in an exclusive statement. report.

The new secret groups were trained 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 adopt a lower profile after a public backlash led to huge mass protests against Iranian influence in late 2019. They were struck by divisions here afterwards. 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 airbase 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.

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 for the 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.

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.

After Soleimani’s death and 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, commanders say. militia.

“They (Iran) believed that 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.

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