Does it matter that Washington outed Tehran’s agent in Iraq?

A fragmented Iraqi Shia polity allows Tehran to maintain influence over Iraqi politics and security.
Sunday 09/09/2018
Leader of the Shia militia group Asaib Ahl al-Haq Qais al-Khazali (C) speaks to his followers in Baghdad, last May 7. (AP)
In the line of fire. Leader of the Shia militia group Asaib Ahl al-Haq Qais al-Khazali (C) speaks to his followers in Baghdad, last May 7. (AP)

After years of Tehran’s psychological operations and information warfare in Iraq, Washington has struck back. It released decade-old interrogation reports of Qais al-Khazali, leader of the Asaib Ahl al-Haq Iraqi Shia militia. The Tehran-backed militant-turned-politician, whose parliamentary group gained 15 seats in Iraq’s elections in May, was reportedly bidding for a cabinet position. Now, he faces public embarrassment.

What effect will the released documents have? Will Khazali gain a cabinet position despite them?

Khazali is not the only agent of influence of Iran in Iraqi politics. How does Washington intend to deal with other prominent agents in Iraq?

Iran’s cultivation of Iraqi agents dates to the Pahlavi regime. It provided considerable economic assistance to individual Shias, Shia shrines and theological seminaries in Iraq. However, support fell short of arming the Shias. This policy was in stark contrast to Tehran’s support for the Kurdish insurgency against Baghdad, which lasted until the signing of the Algiers Accord in 1975. That temporarily solved the border dispute between the two countries.

Tehran’s position changed significantly after the revolution in 1979 and establishment of the Islamic Republic. As Saddam Hussein tore the Algiers Accord to pieces on live television and invaded Iran on August 20, 1980, the revolutionary leadership in Tehran reactivated the previous regime’s policy of supporting the Kurdish insurgency and began mobilising Iraqi Shias against the Ba’ath regime.

Remarkably, Iran’s attempt was not particularly successful. At the time, Iraqi nationalism trumped sectarian identity and the majority of Iraqi Shia, who constituted the rank and file of the Iraqi Army, remained loyal to the Ba’ath regime. However, Tehran established the so-called Badr Corps of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC). It did so by organising Iraqi Dawa Party members who had fled to Iran and Iraqi prisoners of war who volunteered to join Iranian forces in the fight against Saddam.

The Badr Corps was not dissolved after the end of the war with Iraq in 1988. It remained passive during the March and April 1991 Shia uprising against Saddam after the Kuwait war.

The militia’s moment came in 2003, when a US-led coalition invaded Iraq and dismantled the Ba’ath regime. The Badr Corps returned to Iraq to reap the benefits of Iraq’s liberation. It knew it could do so either by infiltrating the restructured institutions of the Iraqi state or by filling the power vacuum in the streets after the dismantlement of the Iraqi Army.

It was in this atmosphere that the Badr Corps led by Hadi al-Amiri and the Mahdi Army led by Muqtada al-Sadr emerged. They splintered into smaller militias such as Kata’ib Sayyid al-Shuhada, led by Abu Ala al-Walai; Asaib Ahl al-Haq, led by Khazali; and Harakat al-Nujaba, led by Akram al-Kaabi.

Iran actively contributed to the intra-Shia rivalry. A fragmented Iraqi Shia polity allows Tehran to maintain influence over Iraqi politics and security. The rival militias constantly compete for Tehran’s favour rather than follow orders from Baghdad. This makes Iran a central player in Iraqi politics.

To return to the question of the documents released by Washington to provide details of Khazali’s record as Tehran’s agent of influence in Iraq. Will the information matter? Does it matter that public knowledge now covers Khazali’s confession to his American captors a decade ago?

This included everything Khazali knew about his masters in Tehran, including Major-General Qassem Soleimani, commander of al-Quds Force. He also told them about the IRGC’s operational mode in Iraq and about Tehran’s manipulation of intra-Shia rivalry.

It’s possible that Washington’s move could destroy Khazali’s political career. It is equally possible that Khazali, in an attempt at political survival, will show even greater submission to the masters he betrayed a decade ago. In that case, he might get a cabinet seat. And he would not be the sole agent of influence of Tehran to do so.