General David Petraeus is the best known top American officer from the Iraq War. There are only a few in the U.S. who know more about internal developments in Iraq than he does. After all, he was commander of the successful “surge” in U.S. forces in Iraq in 2007-2008 that changed the tide of the war and crushed the Iraqi branch of al-Qaida, which was the forerunner of the Islamic State group.
Petraeus was subsequently appointed head of the CIA by the Obama administration, a position from which he had to resign in 2012 as a result of a personal affair. Given his background, when he grants an interview to a major newspaper like the Washington Post about what is currently happening in Iraq and in the Middle East in general, his words can have enormous influence on the centers of power from Cairo to Riyadh.
In Washington today, and elsewhere in the NATO alliance, Western military strategy in the Middle East has been focused on the threat of ISIS, which is using brutal terrorist tactics, including televised beheadings of its prisoners, to strike fear in the hearts of conventional armies. Their collapse has led to the fragmentation of both Syria and Iraq. In creating what it calls a new Islamic caliphate, ISIS has erased the border between them that goes back to the First World War and the famous 1916 Sykes-Picot Agreement.
Yet in his Washington Post interview that was published on March 20, Petraeus defied the conventional wisdom in Western capitals by declaring: “The foremost threat to Iraq’s long-term stability and the broader regional equilibrium is not the Islamic State; rather, it is Shiite militias, many backed by — and some guided by — Iran.”
To those who have been advocating a rapprochement between Washington and Tehran, he warned that Iran is not an American ally in the Middle East, but rather a “part of the problem,” since the more it is seen as dominating the region, the more Sunni radicalism is inflamed and prompted to spread. By stressing that Iran was a greater threat to American interests than ISIS, Petraeus was implicitly criticizing the policy of the administration he once served.
Petraeus was keenly aware of what was happening on the ground in Iraq. Right now dozens of Shiite paramilitary organizations are active in the war against ISIS and are coordinated by a secret branch of the Iraqi government, known as Hashid Shaabi. Its head, Jamal Jaafar Muhammad, is believed by U.S. officials to be tied to the bombing of the U.S. Embassy in Kuwait in 1983, which was organized by Hezbollah mastermind Imad Mughniyeh.
These Shiite militias have a strong anti-American background and many of them were involved in attacks against U.S. forces in Iraq just ten years ago. Today, Jamal Jaafar Muhammad is directly tied to Iran, serving under the infamous General Qassam Suleimani, the commander of the Quds Force of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards. He has been called Suleimani’s “right-hand man.” The connection between the Shiite militias and Suleimani make them into not only an Iraqi force but an extension of Iranian power.
The most important Shiite militia in the Hashid Shaabi network is the Badr Organization which underwent training in Iran for years. Its leader, Hadi al-Amiri, admitted last week to Reuters that his followers view Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei as the leader of the Islamic nation as a whole — and by implication, Iraq — and not only as the head of the Iranian state. Al-Amiri also said recently that the Badr Organization had worked with Hezbollah, which shared its military lessons from fighting Israel.
Today, in the battle over the Sunni city of Tikrit between ISIS and the Iraqi government, Baghdad has massed around 30,000 troops; according to American officials who spoke with The New York Times, two-thirds of them are Shiite militias that have been trained and equipped by Iran. In other words, Iranian-backed militias in Iraq are becoming larger and more powerful than the Iraqi Army. This led Petraeus to conclude that Iran was adopting the Hezbollah model for its surrogate forces in Iraq.
Washington has consistently insisted on the need to preserve the territorial integrity of the Iraqi state. That undoubtedly explains U.S. policy over the last year of refraining from supplying too advanced weaponry to the Kurds. However, the actions of the Iraqi Shiite militias in their war against ISIS, and in particular their brutality against the Sunni Iraqi population, will clearly accelerate the breakup of Iraq. Disputed areas with mixed populations have already faced ethnic cleansing. In short, the militias are having the exact opposite effect that they were intended to bring about.
What is Iran is trying to achieve in Iraq? This was recently revealed on March 8, by Ali Younesi, an adviser to Iranian President Hassan Rouhani. In the past, Younesi served as the powerful intelligence minister under President Mohammad Khatami. Younesi said that Iran was once again an empire. Its capital was Iraq. He added: “There is no way to divide the territory of Iran and Iraq.” He spoke about an eventual “union” between the two countries. In short, he was speaking about an Iranian takeover of Iraq.
In fact, last December over a million Iranian Shiites entered Iran for the Ashura festivals in the Shiite holy cities. According to Iraqi sources they crossed the international borders without any passports; Iraqi authorities do not know how many remained or if they left.
It appears that the recent changes in the Middle East have not only melted the borders between Syria and Iraq, but also between Iraq and Iran. In the past, Iraq served as a buffer state separating Iran from the rest of the Arab world.
With the Iraqi buffer removed, there will be a territorially contiguous line from Tehran to Jordan’s eastern border. It was noteworthy that General Suleimani was quoted as saying that Iran could control events in Jordan, the same way it operated in Iraq and Lebanon. Days later the Revolutionary Guards denied that Suleimani made such a statement and issued their denial through the Iranian Embassy in Amman.
Yet there were other developments detailed in Al Jazeera on March 16 that show how Iran was already at Jordan’s doorstep. It was deploying its Revolutionary Guards forces, as well as those of Hezbollah (and other Shiite militias from Iraq and Afghanistan) in southern Syria, in an area adjacent to the Jordanian border.
Iran is clearly exploiting its nuclear talks with the West to establish its hegemonic position and erect a new regional order from Yemen to Kurdistan. But above all it is what is going on in Iraq today that is altering the shape of the Middle East and consequently the kinds of challenges Israel is likely to face in the years ahead.