Iran's Hard Power Influence in Iraq
Marisa Cochrance serves as research manager at the Institute for the Study of War
Iran has long used hard power to pursue its interests in Iraq. Since the Islamic Revolution in 1979, Iran has supported Iraqi militants with arms, funding, and training. The Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps-Qods Force (IRGC-QF) is the primary mechanism by which Iran asserts hard power in Iraq.
In the early 1980s, the IRGC-QF was integral in the formation of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), a political bloc comprised of Iraqi exiles that subscribed to the Khomeinist ideology and followed the al-Hakim family’s leadership. Its militia affiliate, the Badr Corps, was formed at the same time with Iranian assistance. While the Badr Corps consisted of Iraqi exiles and Iraqi prisoners captured during the Iran-Iraq war, it operated as a unit of the IRGC-QF. The Badr Corps received extensive training and material support from the IRGC-QF, which supplied these militants with as much as $20 million a year. In the 1990s, the Badr Corps operated extensive intelligence and smuggling networks in Iraq to conduct operations against Saddam Hussein’s regime and the Mujehedin-e-Khalq (a militant group comprised of Iranian exiles allied with the Iraqi regime).
Iran continued its support for Shi’a militias in Iraq after the US invasion in 2003. SCIRI and the Badr Corps (renamed the Badr Organization after 2003) continued to receive Iranian funding. The IRGC-QF kept more than 10,000 Badr members on its payroll. However, to maintain pressure on U.S. forces in Iraq as well as the Iraqi government, the IRGC-QF broadened its support to other Shi’a militant groups, the most important of which was the Jaysh al-Mahdi (JAM) militia, the armed wing of the Sadrist Movement. Support for a variety of militia groups let Iran dial up violence in Iraq as it saw necessary. By 2004, the IRGC-QF was providing training, funding, and weapons to JAM fighters, who received instruction in Iranian camps near the border with Iraq.
IRGC-QF support for Iraqi Shi’a militants expanded in 2005. In January 2005, Abu Mustafa al-Sheibani, a former Badr member who operated a logistics, arms, and financing network in Iraq after 2003, began to smuggle Iranian-made weapons known as explosively-formed penetrators (EFPs) into Iraq with greater frequency. EFPs are especially-lethal improvised explosive devices with shaped copper disks and advanced explosives capable of penetrating heavy armor. Sheibani’s network, via old Badr smuggling routes, also trafficked into Iraq 107mm rockets, 122mm rockets, Katyusha rockets, and a variety of mortars for use in indirect fire attacks on Coalition bases. In 2005, Sheibani commanded an extensive Iranian-backed network of 280 members divided among seventeen units. The Sheibani network supplied arms and funding for a variety of Shi’a militia groups, including JAM and Badr. As Iranian-backed violence increased from 2005 onwards, the Sheibani network was implicated in a number of attacks against Coalition and Iraqi forces. Another network run by Ahmad Sajad al-Gharawi also funneled Iranian arms and money into Iraq.
As increasing amounts of Iranian lethal aid flowed into Iraq in 2005, the IRGC-QF training program also expanded. Ali Mussa Daqduq, a member of Lebanese Hezbollah, was sent to Iran to work alongside the IRGC-QF to train Iraqi militants. Daqduq belonged to Department 2800, a unit of Lebanese Hezbollah created to support the IRGC-QF training program. Together, IRGC-QF and Lebanese Hezbollah instructors trained Iraqi fighters at Iranian camps, often those used by the Badr Corps during the 1980s and 1990s.
The IRGC-QF training program was regimented and robust. Iraqi recruiters selected groups of twenty to sixty Iraqi militants, many of whom were members of JAM, for training in Iranian camps. The Iranian towns of Deir and Kutaiban hosted two of these camps just across the border from Basra. Other camps trained militants near Tehran, Qom, Ahvaz, and Mashad. These recruits traveled to Iran primarily through southern Iraq, crossing the border legally through checkpoints or illegally on foot, in cars, or in small boats via the vast marshes of southern Iraq. The training courses generally lasted four to six weeks, during which time militants were instructed in basic paramilitary skills and the use of mortars, rockets, EFPs, and other small arms. Lebanese Hezbollah instructors were frequently used in the camps; their shared Arabic language and practical experience in employing such tactics and weapons in southern Lebanon made them better suited to instruct Iraqi militants. The compartmentalized training programs did not permit recruits to mingle with fighters outside of their course.
As the new Government of Iraq took shape in the spring of 2006, the IRGC-QF reorganized the Iraqi militia cells into a network that more closely resembled Lebanese Hezbollah. In June 2006, the IRGC-QF selected Qais Khazali to head the newly-restructured network. Khazali was a close aide to Muqtada al-Sadr and an important leader in the Sadrist Movement. Khazali’s organization was called Asaib Ahl al-Haq (AAH), or the League of the Righteous; however, those in JAM who saw the network as better funded, armed, and trained it the Special Groups.  Ali Mussa Daqduq was the chief advisor for Khazali and served as a liaison between AAH and the IRGC-QF. AAH received extensive Iranian financial support and training. By March 2007, Iran was providing the network between $750,000 and $3 million in arms and financial support each month. Beginning in 2007, the IRGC-QF also provided advanced training for cell leaders, offering further instruction on weapons, logistics, kidnapping tactics, intelligence operations, and information operations. Some advanced courses took place in southern Lebanon. Iran also employed “train-the-trainer” techniques, where Iraqi fighters are trained in Iranian camps to become instructors upon their return to Iraq.
Under the leadership of Qais Khazali, AAH conducted a number of attacks against Coalition and Iraqi forces, targeting patrols with EFPs and bases with indirect mortar and rocket fire. On January 20, 2007, in one of their most brazen attacks, AAH gunmen infiltrated the Karbala Provincial Joint Coordination Center, killing five U.S. Soldiers and wounding three others. The gunmen dressed in American-style uniforms and had vehicles and identification that resembled those used by U.S. Soldiers. Intelligence gathered from the attack led to a greater understanding of the Iranian-backed militia threat and ultimately the arrest of Qais Khazali, his brother Laith, and Ali Mussa Daqduq in Basra in March 2007. Despite Khazali’s arrest, AAH continued to operate throughout 2007 and 2008. Indeed, EFP and indirect fire attacks increased over the course of 2007 and, following a slight decline in late 2007, spiked again in early 2008.
During the Iraqi Security Force operations in Basra and Sadr City in March and April of 2008, Iranian support for Shi’a militias was especially evident. In Basra, the Iraqi Army encountered strong resistance from militants heavily-armed with Iranian weapons. Likewise, in Baghdad, JAM and AAH fighters fired frequent barrages of Iranian rockets and mortars at the Green Zone and other Coalition bases in the city. They also targeted Coalition patrols with complex EFP and small-arms fire attacks that evinced their training.
In an important sign of Iran’s hard power in Iraq, the IRGC-QF commander Qassem Soleimani was integral in reducing Special Groups’ activity in both Basra and Sadr City. In each case, Iraqi delegations were sent to Tehran to meet with Soleimani and other Iranian officials to discuss a ceasefire and their support for Shi’a militias. A reduction in Iranian-backed militant violence followed.
In the wake of the ISF offensives in Basra, Sadr City, and Amarah, thousands of JAM and AAH fighters fled to Iran in mid-2008 to avoid capture. While in Iran, they were re-trained by IRGC-QF in new tactics and weapons, including magnetic improvised explosive devices (called sticky bombs). These fighters have slowly returned to Iraq to conduct attacks.
While EFP and indirect rocket and mortar attacks have decreased since mid-2008, the IRGC-QF continues to operate training camps for Iraqi fighters. Iran also continues to supply lethal aid to militias; however, they have become more discriminating in their provision of arms.