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Iran: Tehran comes under pressure to halt support for militias operating in Iraq

Publisher EurasiaNet
Author Kamal Nazer Yasin
Publication Date 1 May 2008
Cite as EurasiaNet, Iran: Tehran comes under pressure to halt support for militias operating in Iraq, 1 May 2008, available at: [accessed 21 January 2018]
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Kamal Nazer Yasin: 5/01/08

A high-level Iraqi delegation was in Iran on May 1 for talks aimed at curtailing Tehran's support for Sh'ia militias operating in Iraq. The Iraqi officials were said to possess hard evidence that elements of Iran's Revolutionary Guards are supplying tactical and logistical support to militant groups in Iraq.

US intelligence officials reportedly supplied the evidence of Iranian meddling in Iraq to Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki's government in Baghdad. Acting on the information, the prime minister quickly dispatched the delegation to Tehran, where it is expected to meet with a wide array of top officials.

In recent days, US officials have led a chorus of criticism of Iran's subversive involvement in Iraq. On April 28, for example, the American envoy to the United Nations, Zalmay Khalilzad, vilified Iranian leaders, saying that an elite Revolutionary Guards unit, known as the Quds Force, "continues to arm, train, and fund illegal armed groups in Iraq." In addition to endangering international and Iraqi security forces, the Iranian assistance threatened "the stability and sovereignty of Iraq," Khalilzad said.

An important lever of Iranian influence in Iraq is the Sadr Movement, led by Iraqi cleric Moqtada Sadr. The movement's armed wing, the Mahdi Army, comprises tens of thousands of mostly young, highly-motivated fighters. In addition, the Sadr movement is able to wield considerable influence in the political arena, through its large parliamentary faction.

The Sadr movement's radical Islamic outlook, combined with its anti-Americanism, made it a natural partner for Iranian policy-makers. "Beginning in 2004, a convenient arrangement started between Iran and the Sadrists," said Wayne White, former head of Iraq intelligence at the State Department to the EurasiaNet. "Iran provided arms, financial assistance and training while the Sadrists broadly undermined the US efforts in Iraq."

Unlike the other two prominent Sh'ia groupings – Prime Minister Maliki's Dawa Party, as well as the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq – both of which owe their power and influence principally to institutional arrangements with the United States, the Sadr Movement's support comes chiefly from its deep-rooted popularity among poor Sh'ias in the South and in the slums of Baghdad's Sadr City.

Soon after the two sides started cooperating, Iranian strategic planners realized that the Sadrists could play a key role as a forward-defense mechanism, helping Tehran deter a US military strike aimed at disrupting Iran's nuclear program. In 2006, Moqtada Sadr declared that the Mahdi Army would not hesitate to attack US forces in the event US forces launched a strike against Iranian nuclear sites. Some military analysts believe that the Mahdi Army, if it did decide to launch an all-out operation, would seek to disrupt US military supply lines. About 90 percent of supplies for US forces in Iraq are transported overland via the south of the country.

Iranian leaders also recognized that Sadrists, as a major force opposing US-led stabilization efforts in Iraq, constituted a valuable bargaining chip in Tehran's maneuvering with the West, as well as a counterweight against the accommodationist tendencies of the Dawa Party and the Islamic Supreme Council.

In recent weeks, as pressure mounted on the Sadrists, the movement's leadership appeared to grow increasingly dependent on Iranian support. Fierce street battles have raged in recent weeks in Sadr City, the Baghdad neighborhood that is the movement's stronghold, as Iraq and US troops strive to cripple the Mahdi Army's combat capability. Government troops earlier conducted a campaign to root Mahdi Army elements out of the southern city of Basra.

Perhaps the best indicator of the close ties binding the Sadrists to Iran is the fact that Moqtada himself has chosen to finish his religious studies in Iran – rather than in Najaf, the Sh'ia holy city in Iraq. In addition, Sadrist Friday prayer leaders have, at least until very recently, refrained from criticizing Iran in their weekly sermons.

Iran took several steps of its own to bolster its influence over the Sadrists. Tehran, for example, reportedly increased its financial assistance, and, in early April, it helped Mahdi Army commanders cornered by a government offensive in Basra evade capture.

When the fighting in Basra between the Mahdi fighters and government forces began in March, Iranian conservative media, clearly reflecting the current thinking in Iranian governing circles, for the most part adopted a neutral position. Typical of these publications was Sobhe Sadegh, a weekly newspaper published by the Revolutionary Guards in limited numbers for its officer corps. In its April 7 edition, it translated verbatim an article from al-Sabah, an Iraqi newspaper, in which it linked the outbreak of fighting in Basra to Vice President Dick Cheney's trip to Baghdad a few days earlier. The article deplored the fighting as detrimental to Sh'ia interests in Iraq.

It is quite possible that Iranian officials would be open to Iraqi overtures about curtailing support for the militias. This may be true in large measure because the military tide seemed to turn against the Mahdi Army in April. On April 20, Iran's Ambassador to Iraq Hassan Kazemi Qumi, in a rare public statement, said: "The idea of the government in Basra was to fight outlaws. This was the right of the government and the responsibility of the government. And in my opinion the government was able to achieve a positive result in Basra."

While publicly Iran, through a statement by Foreign Minister Manuchehr Mottaki, has endorsed the Maliki government's chief demand that the Mahdi Army be disbanded, experts believe that Tehran will proceed cautiously on the issue.

Iranian policymakers still are keen on seeing Sadrists do well in provincial elections scheduled for October. Before the recent fighting, many experts believed that the Sadr Movement would be able to capture most of the nine southern provinces. But Sadrists' electoral chances may have been damaged by the setbacks suffered by their militia, and Iran does not wish to see the further erosion of the movement's influence via the unilateral disarmament of its military wing.

While the Sadr Movement is being asked to disarm as a pre-condition for participating in the elections, neither the Maliki government nor American forces have specified a similar condition for other armed groups in Iraq, including the Badr Organization, or the militantly anti-Iran Sunni militias that operate under the umbrella of the Awakening Councils. As long as there is uncertainty on the disarmament issue, Iran is unlikely to completely jettison its support for the Mahdi Army.

Ultimately, Iranian leaders may be worried about their ability to control the youthful and somewhat impulsive Sadr Movement. "The Sadrist nationalistic tendencies make them an unreliable Iranian ally," said Jason Gluck, an Iraq expert at US Institute for Peace in Washington, DC. "Though the Sadrists can advance certain short term Iranian interests, it would be risky for Iran to rely on them on a long-term basis."

Editor's Note: Kamal Nazer Yasin is a pseudonym for a freelance journalist specializing in Iranian affairs.

Posted May 1, 2008 © Eurasianet

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