Iran eclipses US as Iraq's ally in fight against militants

January 14th, 2015  

Topic: Iran eclipses US as Iraq's ally in fight against militants

BAGHDAD — In the eyes of most Iraqis, their country's best ally in the war against the Islamic State group is not the United States and the coalition air campaign against the militants. It's Iran, which is credited with stopping the extremists' march on Baghda

Shiite, non-Arab Iran has effectively taken charge of Iraq's defense against the Sunni radical group, meeting the Iraqi government's need for immediate help on the ground.

Two to three Iranian military aircraft a day land at Baghdad airport, bringing in weapons and ammunition. Iran's most potent military force and best known general — the Revolutionary Guard's elite Quds Force and its commander Gen. Ghasem Soleimani — are organizing Iraqi forces and have become the de facto leaders of Iraqi Shiite militias that are the backbone of the fight. Iran carried out airstrikes to help push militants from an Iraqi province on its border.

The result is that Tehran's influence in Iraq, already high since U.S. forces left at the end of 2011, has grown to an unprecedented level.

Airstrikes by the U.S.-led coalition have helped push back the militants in parts of the north, including breaking a siege of a Shiite town. But many Iraqis believe the Americans mainly want to help the Kurds. Airstrikes helped Kurdish forces stop extremists threatening the capital of the Kurdish autonomous zone, Irbil, in August. But even that feat is accorded by many Iraqis to a timely airlift of Iranian arms to the Kurds.

The meltdown of Iraq's military in the face of the extremists' summer blitz across much of northern and western Iraq gave Iran the opportunity to step in. A flood of Shiite volunteers joined the fight to fill the void, bolstering the ranks of Shiite militias already allied with Iran.

Those militias have now been more or less integrated into Iraq's official security apparatus, an Iraqi government official said, calling this the Islamic State group's "biggest gift" to Tehran.

"Iran's hold on Iraq grows tighter and faster every day," he said, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to discuss the sensitive subject.

Over the past year, Iran sold Iraq nearly $10 billion worth of weapons and hardware, mostly weapons for urban warfare like assault rifles, heavy machine-guns and rocket launchers, he said. The daily stream of Iranian cargo planes bringing weapons to Baghdad was confirmed at a news conference by a former Shiite militia leader, Jamal Jaafar. Better known by his alias Abu Mahdi al-Mohandis, Jaafar is second in command of the recently created state agency in charge of volunteer fighters.

Some Sunnis are clearly worried. Sunni lawmaker Mohammed al-Karbuly said the United States must increase its support of Iraq against the extremists in order to reduce Iran's influence.

"Iran now dominates Iraq," he said.

Equally key to Iran's growing influence has been a persistent suspicion of Washington's intentions, particularly among Shiite militiamen.

Hadi al-Amiri, a prominent Shiite politician close to Iran and leader of the powerful Badr militia, complained in a recent television interview that Iraq was a victim of decades of "wrong" U.S. policies in the Middle East. He charged that the precursors of the region's Sunni extremists had in the past enjoyed U.S. patronage.

"We fear that the objective of the U.S.-led coalition is to contain Daesh, rather than exterminate it," he said, using the Arabic acronym for the Islamic State group.

Speaking this week at a memorial service in Iran for a Revolutionary Guard officer gunned down by an Islamic State sniper, al-Amiri mused that Iraqi Shiite Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi's three-month-old administration would have been a "government-in-exile" if not for Iran's swift help to protect Baghdad, according to Iran's Fars news agency.

The praise does not just come from Shiite politicians.

During a trip to Tehran last week, Iraq's Sunni defense minister, Khaled al-Obeidi, said Iran's help against the militants is a "strategic necessity" for Iraq.

U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Stuart Jones acknowledged to The Associated Press that Iran plays an important role in fighting the Islamic State group. He made clear there was no interaction between the U.S. and Iranian operations.

"Let's face it, Iran is an important neighbor to Iraq. There has to be cooperation between Iran and Iraq," he said in a Dec. 4 interview. "The Iranians are talking to the Iraqi security forces and we're talking to Iraqi security forces . We're relying on them to do the de-confliction."

U.S. Army Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said Iraqi leaders have kept the U.S. informed about Iranian activities against IS and that Washington is watching the relationship carefully.

He said if the two countries grow closer economically or politically, "as long as the Iraqi government remains committed to inclusivity of all the various groups inside the country, then I think Iranian influence will be positive."

But Ali Khedery, a top U.S. official in Iraq from 2003 until 2009, warned that Iranian influence will be "strategically catastrophic."

"It further consolidates Iran's grip over the Levant and Iraq," said Khedery, who resigned in protest over U.S. failure to thwart Iranian influence.

Iran's sphere of influence extends to neighboring Syria, where it has stood by President Bashar Assad's regime against the mostly Sunni opposition, and to Lebanon, where its main proxy, Hezbollah, is that nation's most powerful group. Also, the Shiite Houthi rebels' takeover of parts of Yemen in recent months has raised concerns of Iranian influence there.

The signs of Iran's weight in Iraq are many. The prime minister, the Sunni parliament speaker and other top politicians have visited Tehran. Most senior Iraqi Sunni politicians have stopped publicly criticizing Iran and vilifying Shiite politicians for close ties to Tehran.

On billboards around Baghdad, death notices of Iraqi militiamen killed in battle are emblazoned with images of Iran's late spiritual leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, and his successor, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Last month, an unprecedented number of Iranians — estimated at up to 4 million — crossed into Iraq to visit a revered Shiite shrine south of Baghdad for a major holy day. Visa charges for the Iranians have been waived.

The two countries keep their military cooperation relatively quiet in public. Iran occasionally publicizes the death in battle of one of its senior officers in Iraq or speaks of its "advisory" military role. Iraq's state media don't mention Iranian military involvement. Paradoxically, they do publicize airstrikes by the U.S.-led coalition or the arrival of American advisers.

Soleimani, the Iranian general, has spent much of the past seven months on Iraq's front lines, leading militias and coordinating tactics with government forces.

A fluent Arabic speaker, the 58-year-old has reportedly been nicknamed the "living martyr" by Iran's Khamenei.

A senior Shiite Iraqi militiaman who recently met him said he was impressed by his mix of piety and courage. He said he saw the Iranian general at a forward position in Baghdad's western outskirts, discussing coordinates in Farsi with the gunner of an Iraqi army U.S.-made Abrams tank. The gunner was a member of the Revolutionary Guard, the militiaman said.


Associated Press writers Lolita C. Baldor and Ken Dilanian in Washington, and Vivian Salama and Sameer N. Yacoub in Baghdad contributed to this report.
January 14th, 2015  
How much has Iran helped Iraq against Islamic State?

KHALIS, IRAQ — The closer one gets to Iraq’s front line with the Islamic State, the more evidence one finds of Iran’s deep involvement in Baghdad's battle against Sunni jihadists.

Last June, after IS swept across the Syrian border into Iraq, Shiite Iran was the first to provide guns, ammunition, and military advisers. It drew on its decades-long experience in organizing Shiite militias in foreign lands to bolster Iraq’s beleaguered armed forces.

Two to three Iranian military aircraft now arrive daily in Baghdad; Iran sold Iraq nearly $10 billion in weapons and hardware in 2014, the Associated Press reported Monday.

But Iraqi perceptions of Iran’s military assistance are often colored by sectarian politics. And while many credit Iran’s role as decisive on the ground, assessments vary of its military value, particularly when compared with a US-led air campaign that the Pentagon says has struck more than 3,200 IS targets in Syria and Iraq.

For their part, Iranian officials champion both their role in “saving” Baghdad and the prowess of Maj.-Gen. Qassem Soleimani, the Qods Force commander, in swiftly halting and then reversing the advance of IS forces in Iraq’s northeastern Diyala Province. They also assert that the US effort has been “ineffective” and “not serious.”

“Without Iran, Iraq would be collapsed by now,” says Uday al-Khadran, the Shiite mayor of Khalis, 35 miles north of Baghdad, whose office has worked closely to marshal Iran-backed Shiite militias against IS.

Iran gave support “from all sides: morale, military and personnel support,” says Mr. Khadran. “The only effective country that helps Iraq is Iran.”

Coalition air campaign
Iraq’s Shiite prime minister, Haidar al-Abadi, has welcomed US airstrikes, but voiced criticism of parts of the US role. On Sunday he said the US-led coalition had been “very slow” in support and training of the Iraqi Army, though he allowed there “has been an acceleration” in the last two weeks.

The Pentagon said last week it is “confident that the destruction level is high” from the coalition air campaign.

Not all Iraqi Shiites are dismissive of the US role. Some say US airpower, and not Iran's on the ground support, was the key to holding IS at the gates of Baghdad.

It's difficult to overstate the impact that the fall of Mosul to IS last June has had on the nation's sectarian politics. Just days after Mosul fell, Iraqi Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani – the country's most revered Shiite cleric whose political interventions are very rare – issued a fatwa in which he called on "all able-bodied Iraqis" to defend the Iraqi nation.

That was widely taken as encouragement for the formation of Shiite militias, something Mr. Sistani's representatives say they oppose. But nevertheless, his call to arms has resulted in a surge of recruits for Shiite militias, which Iran has long backed, both before and after US troops invaded Iraq in 2003.

Shiite militias resented
The Iranian strategy has resurrected Iraq's Shiite militias and deployed them effectively against IS on some front lines, those same militia contributed to tens of thousands of deaths at the peak of Iraq’s sectarian battles from 2006-2008.

Officials of Iraq’s Sunni minority say human rights abuses by the Shiite militias are as rampant now as they were 5 years ago. And they grate at the number of banners strung up with Iranian revolutionary slogans – against Israel, for example, or to support religious pilgrims – along with images of Iran’s previous and current supreme leaders, Ayatollahs Ruhollah Khomeini and Ali Khamenei.

“The pictures of these Iranian imams on Baghdad streets annoys the Sunnis, and that raises sectarian feelings among the Sunnis,” says Talal al-Zobaei, a Sunni former lawmaker and political scientist. “From the Sunni view, [Shiite militias] are enemies, they are killers.”

“If the militias become strong, it will be for the benefit of Iran,” says Hisham Alhashimi, a strategic analyst in Baghdad. “Iran will decide if this monster is to be contained or to run wild, and whether they want it to be part of [official] Iraqi forces or not. Even the [top clerics] can’t control them. This part of the story is in the hands of Iran completely.”

There is deep irony in the fact that Iranian generals who fought the 1980s Iran-Iraq war against Saddam Hussein’s Sunni-led regime – men such as General Soleimani – are now credited with riding to the rescue of Baghdad, now under a Shiite-led government.

Conditions for Iranian help
As a consequence, Iran has seen its currency rise in Iraq. Last week it declared that it would not allow IS within 25 miles of its shared border. Some Iraqis, however, warn that the battle against IS has provided an easy pretext for Tehran to engage more deeply in Iraq.

“We are looking into how to curtail the influence of Iran here,” says Iraqi Vice President Ayad Allawi, a secular Shiite who served as interim prime minister after Saddam Hussein was defeated. “They are supplying weapons to the Iraq government, so of course the influence of Iran is increasing.”

While the precise number of the hundreds of Iranian officers serving in Iraq is unknown, their involvement has been at a high level and, by many accounts, decisive. The highest ranking Iranian casualty so far, Maj. Gen. Hamid Taghavi of the Revolutionary Guard, was killed by IS snipers while taking cover behind an electrical transformer near Samarra just two weeks ago.

Iran’s help, however, is “conditional” in terms of affecting Iraqi politics, “and this will cause a lot of rifts within Iraq,” says Mr. Allawi. “But if you step forward and help a country, without getting involved in the micro-policies, then there is no problem.”

Without naming the countries, Allawi says he was asked to recruit two Arab regional players to also assist Iraq, which eases Iraq’s military dependence on Iran. They are “helping Iraq, but not stepping in. They are supplying capabilities intelligence, some weapons free of charge to Iraq,” he says.

Iran's response speedier
But in this northeastern Iraqi province, largely free now of IS militants, Iran is given much credit for reversing the IS juggernaut.

“It’s a big difference when you are in trouble,” says Col. Saad Mirwah of the Iraqi 5th Division. “One [the US] makes a phone call, and the other [Iran] takes you by the hand and helps you.”

In one instance, only six 120mm mortar shells remained at one frontline position. The leader of the Iran-backed Badr militia called Baghdad and 250 more shells were sent immediately. Another time, troops were in desperate need of ammunition.

“One hour after this call, they got their ammunition. In the bad old days, it would take days, and writing letters,” says Mirwah. “There is a direct line with Iranian advisers. They say, ‘We need this and that,’ and it comes directly.”

The US and the West “did not betray us, but they left us – they hesitated in making a decision,” says Mayor Khadran, echoing a common view in Iraq about Washington’s delay in deciding how to help. When IS was “at the doors of Baghdad, the [US-led] coalition does nothing. Iran, it’s very fast. They opened their doors immediately.
January 17th, 2015  
Did you see the YouTube video posted by Namvet? Those US airstrikes look pretty impressive. Kobani was in danger of falling before the airstrikes began, now the kurds have the upper hand. It's likely that the US is also helping in covert ways as well. Iran may be helping in separate spheres of influence. Personal I know the US (my country) and Iran are not friends, but the destruction of ISIS is the key objective.

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