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Iran’s Trojan Army Makes A Splash In Iraq | ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive 2005 -2017
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An army created by “others” cannot be reformed; it must be abolished and replaced by a new one loyal to the revolution. For almost four decades, that has been one of the key themes of the regional strategy pursued by the Khomeinist regime in Tehran. 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 member of a five-man committee that purged Iran’s regular armed forces of “officers with doubtful loyalties.” When he became Defence Minister under Khomeini, Iran’s regular armed forces had all but been dispersed only to be partially reconstituted as a parallel army to help cope with the Iraqi invasion of 1980 under Saddam Hussein.

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

It was then that the idea of staging a military coup in Baghdad was brought up in Tehran. The idea was not new. Under the Shah, Iran had helped Ba’athists seize power in a coup against President Abdul-Rahman Aref in 1968. And in 1970, Tehran again tried to organize a coup, this time against the Ba’athists but failed.

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

So, it was back to Chamran’s idea of a parallel army in Iraq.

The plan was facilitated by the fact that over the years 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 vast pool for recruitment for the planned parallel army.

The fact that several Arab Shiite tribes live across the Iran-Iraq border also facilitated the task. Many of the first generation of recruits, including their future commander Hadi al-Ameri, belonged to the Iranian wing of tribes that also had a presence in Iraq.

By 1982 the planned parallel army, named Al-Badr Brigade (Faylaqat al-Badr) after a famous battle won by the Prophet, was ready for deployment. Although treated as a unit of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, 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 Ayatollah Muhammad Baqer Hakim.

Hakim and Khomeni

Hakim’s presence was both an advantage and a threat to Khomeini and his entourage. It was an advantage because Hakim represented a respected clerical dynasty with deep historic roots in both Iran and Iraq.

Originally from Shiraz in southern Iran, the Hakim clan had lived in Najaf for generations and regarded by many Iraqis as natives of Mesopotamia. Muhammad-Baqer’s father, Grand Ayatollah Mohsen hakim Tabataba’i had been the supreme “Marja’a al-Taqlid” (Source of Emulation) and A’alam al-Ulema of Shiism until his death in 1970. The presence of Muhammad-Baqer at the head of the SCIRI helped create the impression that the movement had a religious benediction while retaining its Iraqi identity.

The disadvantage was that Ayatollah Muhammad-Baqer Hakim could not be treated as a mere “yes-man” of the Tehran mullahs. Doggedly he insisted on retaining an independent identity for Iraqi Shiites especially by making it clear that as far as he was concerned the center of religious authority was still in Najaf and symbolized by the Grand Ayatollah Abol-Qassem Mussawi Kho’i who had succeeded Grad Ayatollah Hakim as Marj’a.

By 1983, Badr was reported to have built up its strength to around 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. Commanded by Iranian officers and NCOs, Badr was deployed in a number of battles, notably at the Chezabeh Pass and Hamid. By most accounts Badr’s performance was far from satisfactory in military terms and the then IRGC Commander General Mohsen Reza’i decided to keep them in the background as much as possible.

Badr was now seen as a future parallel army inside Iraq, after Saddam’s overthrow. However, by 1988 it had become clear that Saddam would not be easily dislodged.

Badr’s Iranian managers decided to recast it as a political force. It was in that capacity that Badr entered Iraq in 2003 after Saddam’s removal by the American invasion.

“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 a strong foreign power, in this case Iran.

Tensions Within Badr

Whatever the reason, Tehran never managed to bring Badr under the kind of tight control that it imposed on the Lebanese Hezbollah. Khomeinist leaders always feared that Iraqi Shiites might one day even challenge Iran as the heartland of Shiism. That fear was partly borne out after Saddam’s fall when Badr, returning to Iraq, tried to play its own music for a while.

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 from the city of Mahallat. Tehran also created an Iraqi branch of Hezbollah for Arab Shiites and another for Sunni Kurds.

Experience showed that none of the Iraqi Shiite militias created and financed by Iran would offer the level of loyalty provided by Lebanese Hezbollah.

That explains the roller-coaster aspect of relations with individuals like Ammar al-Hakim who now heads the re-named SCIRI and Muqtada al-Sadr among others.

As many had predicted the SCIRI, now re-packaged as a political party, separated itself from the Badr Brigade which, after a brief parenthesis of relative independence from Iran, ended up under tighter Iranian control, this time through the notorious Quds (Jerusalem) Corps led by General Qassem Suleimani.

Having theoretically disarmed itself, Badr nevertheless kept large caches of weapons and maintained organizational contact especially in Baghdad and Basra. The appearance of a political party was sued as a camouflage behind which the military structure would remain dormant but intact.

By 2011 it seemed that Iran had no need of a Trojan horse in Iraq. The government led by Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki was fully prepared to recast Iraq as part of Iran’s zone of influence in exchange for Tehran’s support for his faction.

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 quickly revived. Not only Iraq but also Syria needed to forget about their regular armies and create new parallel fighting units. General Hussein Hamadani, killed in Aleppo a few weeks ago, was sent to Syria for that purpose and, as he claims in his last interview, managed to create parallel fighting units that ”saved President Bashar al-Assad from certain demise.”
The emergence of ISIL gave the dormant Badr Brigade a new lease of life. In the winter of 2014 General Esmail Qaani, Suleiman’s number-two, was sent to Iraq to create the parallel army.

Marketing the New Force

The initial problem on that route was the presentation of such a force. Iraqi public opinion would not have accepted a parallel army under direct Iranian command and control. For its part, Iran did not want to be seen to be in direct war against ISIL. In fact, as Iranian army commander General Pour Dastan has said Tehran and ISIL have reached a tacit understanding under which the terrorist group would not come closer than 40 kilometers from the Iranian border. In exchange, Iran would not deploy its own forces to dislodge ISIL from its conquests in Iraq and Syria.

In other words, Iran wanted a proxy war against ISIL. And that required a local Iraqi horse in the race. That in turn, needed some legitimacy. That was provided with a number of fatwas from the top clerics of Najaf, notably Grand Ayatollah Ali-Muhammad Sistani.

Gen. Qaani had the merit of quickly reviving the Badr structures and appointing new commanders to a new force. The new force, unveiled on 15 June 2014, was named Hashad al-Shaabi, which means “popular mobilization” or “popular crowding”. Care was taken not to include the word “Islamic” in the name of the new parallel army thus avoiding easy association with the IRGC. However, virtually the entire high command of the Hashad consist of officers from Badr, including their top commander Hadi Ameri, most of whom have double Iranian and Iraqi nationality.

Qaani’s concern was to market Hashad as a pan-Iraqi force. This is why he brought together a number of small, often dormant, militia and at times even non-existent, militias together to form what he claimed was a “united front”. The Badr organization itself was cited as one of the component parts of the new army. The Mahdi Army, supposedly long dissolved, also made a comeback along with Katayeb Hezbollah al-Iraq.

Other groups included are Katayeb Imam Ali, Katayeb Sayyed al-Shuhada (Lord of the Martyrs), The Peace Companions, and the Morteza Ali units.

To give the parallel army a non-sectarian appearance, Hashad also includes a small unit from the esoteric Shiite sect and between 2000 and 3000 Sunni volunteers, mostly from tribes in north western Iraq.

At the time of writing, Hashad al-Shaabi claims to be a force of over 120,000. Many military analysts, however, believe that figure to be exaggerated. In any case, in the few battles that Hashad has 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 a total manpower of around 30,000.

Theoretically, Hashad is under the control of the Iraqi government in the person of National Security Adviser who has a set on the Cabinet. At one level, the parallel army is supposed to be under direct command of Prime Minister Haydar al-Abadi and, through him, the supervision of the Iraqi Parliament.

However, field commanders are almost all veterans of collaboration with Iran, notably Abu Mahdi al. Mohandas who leads the Hezbollah unit and Kais al-Khazali who is in charge of the Asayeb Ahl al-Haq.

Both Tehran and Baghdad try to present Hashad as a temporary force to deal with ISIL. However, in Islamic history many “temporary” forces ended up lasting a very long time. And that could be a long-term danger for Iraq.