Iran’s proxy armies as strategic weapon
Beirut - The offensive to retake the Iraqi city of Tikrit, Saddam Hussein’s birthplace, was spearheaded by an Iranian-backed force of some 20,000 Shia militiamen, many of them veterans of the Tehran-directed covert war against the Americans in Iraq prior to the US withdrawal in December 2011. They were supported by up to 10,000 government soldiers.
Tehran’s open use of what were long considered clandestine forces to further its strategic objectives underlines how the turmoil that has convulsed the Middle East since 2011 has emboldened Iran’s leadership even as it negotiates with US-led world powers over its nuclear programme.
The Shia militias in Iraq have become Tehran’s major weapon in fighting Sunni jihadists, such as the Islamic State (ISIS) and the caliphate it proclaimed in northern Iraq in June 2014, and in a much broader effort to install friendly regimes around its periphery that delineates Iranians’ fear of foreign threats to the Islamic Republic.
The Iraqi army, still struggling to reorganise after its complete collapse during last summer’s ISIS blitzkrieg, relies on Iran’s proxies to counter the jihadists, and this, in turn, has greatly strengthened Tehran’s control of its western neighbour.
There are an estimated 50 Shia groups operating in Iraq and Syria, dominated by several organisations led by stridently anti-American extremists.
Iran’s proxy war, which embraces Iraq, Syria, Lebanon and Yemen, is directed by Major-General Qassem Soleimani, commander of the Al- Quds Force, the elite, 15,000-strong arm of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC).
Soleimani, a decorated veteran of the 1980-88 war with Iraq, coordinates all of Iran’s armed proxies outside its borders. Now 56, he’s lauded as a hero by his countrymen and there has even been talk of him becoming president one day.
Many of the men who lead the main Iraqi Shia militias are long-time Al-Quds operatives who have been active since the 1980s. The most dangerous of these is a veteran of Iran’s undercover wars who uses the nom de guerre Abu Mahdi al-Muhandes and who is operations chief of the Popular Mobilisation Unit (PMU), which embraces all the proxy groups.
Muhandes, now in his 60s, is Soleimani’s right-hand man. They have known each for 20 years and Muhandes has considerable influence in Tehran. The United States branded him a Specially Designated Global Terrorist in July 2009.
Kataib Sayyed al-Shuhada, or Brigades of the Prince of Martyrs, is led by Mustafa al Sheibani, a veteran Iranian-backed operative who headed the notorious Sheibani Network during the war against the Americans in Iraq.
One of the oldest and most effective groups is Asaib Ahl al-Haqq (AAH), or League of the Righteous. It is led by Akram Abas al Kadi, designated a terrorist by the United States in 2009.
Its founder, Qaid al-Khazali, another Iraqi Al-Quds alumnus, led an operation in which six US soldiers were killed near the Shia holy city of Karbala in early 2007. He and his brother Laith were captured by US forces but were released by Baghdad after the United States withdrew in December 2011.
This Iranian “foreign legion” emerged as Tehran became increasingly concerned at what it saw as a ring of Sunni militancy on its borders, with the Islamic State and its self-proclaimed caliphate in Iraq and Syria as the biggest threat, evoking as it does the historic triumphs of Sunni Islam over the breakaway Shia in the dynastic wars of the seventh and eighth centuries that followed the death of the Prophet Mohammed. Military analysts say it is becoming ever clearer that Tehran’s strategic objective is to exploit the power vacuums created by the upheavals of the “Arab spring” to dominate not only Iraq and Syria, now essentially Iranian protectorates, but the entire region from the Arab Levant to Afghanistan.