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Iran's Trojan Army Faces Challenge in Iraq

Iran's Trojan Army Faces Challenge in Iraq

Friday, 19 July, 2019 - 06:30
Amir Taheri
Amir Taheri was the executive editor-in-chief of the daily Kayhan in Iran from 1972 to 1979. He has worked at or written for innumerable publications, published eleven books, and has been a columnist for Asharq Al-Awsat since 1987

By the end of July, Iraq is set to face what may be the biggest challenge it has faced in its post-liberation history: the full integration of Shiite militias into the regular national army. But, will that actually happen?

This is not the first time that the Iraqi leadership, this time in the person of Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi, announces the integration. Abdul-Mahdi’s predecessor Haidar al-Abadi issued similar statements on at least two occasions, each time under pressure from Washington, before meekly retreating.

No one knows exactly how many groups are involved as figures vary between 5 and 10 in the umbrella organization known as Hashd al-Shaabai (Popular Mobilization). However, one thing is certain: although some of the groups involved have exclusively Iraqi roots the “mobilization” as a whole could be regarded as Iran’s Trojan army in Iraq.

Three large groups; the Badr Organization led by Hadi al-Ameri and Kataeb Hezbollah under Abu-Mahdi Muhandis are largely manned and led by Iraqis who also have Iranian citizenship and regard themselves as part of a global “Islamic” revolution led from Tehran. Two other outfits, Asaib Ahl al-Haq and Hezbollah al-Nujaba are also too close to Tehran to be regarded as independent Iraqi units.

From its first days, the Khomeinist regime in Tehran regarded most Arab nations as artificial states created by colonial powers around an army of natives they had created as a means of controlling the population. Thus, revolutionary Iran had to disband or at least weaken those armies by creating Arab revolutionary armies loyal to the ayatollah.

The original theoretician of the strategy was Mostafa Chamran, a US-educated scientist who helped launch the Harakat al-Mahroumin (Movement of the Dispossessed) in Lebanon before returning to Iran after the mullahs had seized power. He was one of the principal founders of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and Minister of Defence under Khomeini.

In 1979 and part of 1980 Khomeini had hoped that to overthrow Saddam with a repeat of the scenario that led to the fall of the Shah. Soon, however, he realized that Saddam was a different beast, not hesitating to massacre opponents on a large scale.

In 1980 the mullahs concluded that they would not be able to seize power in Baghdad with a military coup either. There were few senior Shiite officers in the Iraq army and those who have had no desire to bring the mullahs to power.

Therefore, it was back to Chamran’s idea of a parallel army.

The plan was facilitated by the fact that Saddam Hussein had driven over a million Iraqi Shiites from their homes and into Iran. With the start of the Iran-Iraq war (1980-88) thousands of Iraqi army deserters, including many officers and NCOs fled to Iran providing a pool for recruitment for the planned parallel army.

The Badr Brigade was given an outward Iraqi identity as the military wing of the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq, a clerical-political anti-Saddam group led by Muhammad Baqer Hakim.

By 1983, Badr was reported to have built up its strength to 15000 men, equipped with two dozen tanks captured from the Iraqi army, a number of armored vehicles and batteries of RPGs and short-range artillery.

However, by 1988 it had become clear that Saddam would not be easily dislodged.

“The experience of the Badr Brigade provides an interesting contrast with that of Hezbollah, another parallel army created by Iran in Lebanon,” says Hamid Zomorrodi, a specialist in Iran-controlled militias. “Hezbollah was successful because it was totally loyal to Iran’s new rulers, regarding Lebanon as little more than a geographical expression. The Iraqis of Badr, however, had residual Iraqi nationalist sentiments and found it hard to be totally devoted to Iran.”

That analysis may miss a key point. The Iraqis believed that since Shiites form the majority of their country’s population they would end up in control of the country at some point. Lebanese Shiites, however, knew that although they formed the largest community they could never impose their rule except by force, and that required the support of strong foreign power, in this case, Iran.

Whatever the reason, Tehran never managed to bring Badr under the kind of tight control that it had imposed on the Lebanese Hezbollah. The result was Tehran’s support for alternative parallel armies, notably the Army of Mahdi (Jaish al-Mahdi) of Muqtada al-Sadr, a junior mullah who belonged to another Iranian clerical dynasty. Tehran also created an Iraqi branch of Hezbollah for Arab Shiites and another for Sunni Kurds.

After a period of relative independence from Tehran, the Badr Brigade ended up under tighter Iranian control, this time through the Quds (Jerusalem) Corps led by General Qassem Suleimani.

However, by 2011 it seemed that Iran did not need a Trojan horse in Iraq. Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki was prepared to recast Iraq as part of Iran’s zone of influence in exchange for Tehran’s support.

The eruptive appearance of the Islamic State in Iraq and Levant (ISIL) changed all that. The ease with which ISIL seized Mosul, extending its Syrian conquests into Iraq showed that the battle for dominance in the region was far from over. Maliki and his allies in Tehran realized that the newly created Iraqi army trained and equipped by the US and its allies, might not share their domestic and/or regional goals.

The daily Kayhan believed to echo the thinking of “Supreme Guide” Ali Khamenei, run an editorial castigating the new Iraqi army as “a bunch of cowards and traitors” because they had allegedly ran away from ISIL in Mosul.

The old Chamran doctrine of "parallel armies" was revived.

In the winter of 2014 General Esmail Qaani, Suleiman’s number-two was sent to Iraq to create the parallel army.

Hashad al-Shaabi claims to be a force of over 150,000. Military analysts, however, believe that figure to be exaggerated. In battles that Hashad fought notably in Tikrit where it was udder direct Iranian command, the force could not deploy more than 10,000 men at any given time which, taking into account the traditional rate of rotation of military formations means manpower of around 30,000.

Iraq has an excellent chance, perhaps a unique one, to rebuild itself as an independent and progressive power in the Middle East. However, it cannot do so by repeating the colonial method of nation-building: creating a state around an army subservient to an outside power.

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