Gen. Qasem Soleimani, commander of the Quds Force of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard, which is responsible for subversive operations carried out by the Revolutionary Guard abroad, has again visited Iraq. Apparently, this is the first visit in about a year, during which Iran has involved itself deeply in the current Iraqi political turmoil in an effort to influence the composition of Iraq’s government.
The last time Soleimani was seen in Iraq was at the end of December 2017, when he was accompanied by Hassan Danaeifar, the former Iranian ambassador to Baghdad, who used to be a senior officer in the Quds force. Soleimani met with Iraqi Kurdish leader Masoud Barzani about three months after the failure of a referendum over independence in the Kurdish region. Before the referendum was held, Iran exerted heavy pressure to prevent it and essentially achieved its goal. Following Soleimani’s visit at that time, Iran agreed to reopen two border crossings between Iran and Iraqi Kurdistan, which Tehran had closed because of the referendum initiative.
A Sword on its Way to Liberate Palestine
According to the Iranian Al-Alam channel (which broadcasts in Arabic to a target audience across the Arab and Muslim world as part of the Iranian propaganda network), Abu Mahdi Al-Muhandis, vice-commander of the Iraqi Shiite militia Al-Hashd Al-Sha’abi (the Popular Mobilization Committee), accompanied Soleimani during the meeting. At this meeting, the commander of the Quds force gave a sword to his Sunni host, declaring that this sword is similar to that of Imam Ali, the first imam of the Shiites, as it is “a sign of honesty and draws attention to the liberation of Palestine.”1
During 2016, Abu Mahdi Al-Muhandis was often seen accompanying the Quds force commander to the battlefronts against the forces of the Islamic State (ISIS), including the battle for the liberation of Falluja. Recently, he has been visiting Tehran regularly, and his visits receive a lot of media coverage. He was one of the guests of the International Islamic Unity Conference that took place in Iran at the end of November 2018, and he even received an Iranian cinematic prize for supporting the opposition. At the same time, Iraq’s new President Barham Salih paid his first official visit to Tehran in October 2018.
Iraqi newspapers identifying with the Iranian opposition interpret Soleimani’s visit as a sign of Tehran’s renewed interference in Iraq’s internal affairs. At the same time, Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdul Mahdi has encountered difficulties in assembling his government – seven months after general elections took place. A correspondent for The Voice of America’s Persian-language television service broadcast from Iraq reported that the Shiite faction in the Iraqi government expressed its strong opposition to the pressures exerted by Soleimani on the choice of Iraq’s interior minister.2
Assassination Squads to Protect Iranian Influence
When the results of the Iraqi elections of May 2018 became clear, Tehran quickly exerted all of its influence to promote the composition of a national unity government in which the pro-Iranian parties would participate. However, it only had partial and limited success, and since then it has been trying to assassinate its opponents in Iraq. The most prominent assassination was that of Adel Shakar El-Tamimi, ally of Iraqi former Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi, in September 2018.
Iran’s involvement in Iraq is not new, and it has had its ups and downs. The re-imposition of U.S. sanctions on Iran has increased its interest in intensifying its interference in Iraq and “speeding up” the process of assembling a government through threats and intimidation. So far, Parliament has approved 14 out of 22 appointments of ministers to the government, but the appointment of some very prominent ministers, primarily in the fields of defense, the interior, justice, education, and culture have yet to receive final approval.
Iran seeks to turn Iraq into another channel through which it can bypass the U.S. sanctions imposed upon it through trade and smuggling, especially oil. Essentially, the new government of Iraq needs to maneuver between the conflicting interests of the parties of which it is comprised, as well as between Iranian and American pressure.
Sometime during the summer of 2018, violent demonstrations took place in Iraq’s Shiite cities, particularly Basra and Najaf, against widespread corruption in all of Iraq’s systems of government. These demonstrations turned into a show of force against Iran. Tehran was not intimidated by these demonstrations and the harsh slogans against it, and it knew how to quickly revive its neighbor’s confidence. Among other things, it sent more than two million Iranian Shiites to the Shiite cities in Iraq for religious ceremonies to honor the memory of Imam Husayn, the third Imam. This strengthened the Shiite areas in Iraq economically. Additionally, Iran has donated vast sums of money to renovate and repair these cities in Iraq.
A unique angle to the depth of Iran’s attempts to interfere in Iraqi politics and its efforts to influence the election results was provided by Mithal al-Alusi, the secular Sunni leader of the liberal Al-Ummah Party on December 1, 2018. He said that Iranian hit squads are being sponsored by local (Shiite) militias to remain in Iraqi territory. These squads have already carried out a number of assassinations, and they intend to continue with these operations in the future. According to him, these assassinations are meant to “disturb, silence, and threaten any politicians waging a campaign against corruption and the sale of Iraq to several countries (a strong allusion to Iran).” Alusi even warned that senior Shiite religious figure Muqtada al-Sadr was at the top of the Iranian death squads’ hit-list because of his patriotic stance against the “sale” of Iraq to Iran and his determined struggle against corruption.3 Shawki al-Haddad, a close ally of al-Sadr, was murdered by representatives of the Quds force in Iraq in July 2018, after he presented positions that were too nationalist and independent for Tehran’s taste and even accused it of electoral fraud. Radi Al-Tai, a protégé of senior Ayatollah al-Sistani (a Shiite religious world leader who has played a decisive role in the stabilization of Iraq), survived an assassination attempt in August 2018, after he criticized Iranian interference in the composition of the new government.
A similar report also appeared in the British newspaper The Telegraph, claiming that Iranian assassination squads – under Qasem Soleimani’s command –stationed in Iraq following the elections in May 2018, are meant to silence voices within the country calling for an end to Iran’s intervention in Iraq’s internal affairs. This follows Iran’s failure to get a large number of its supporters elected to Parliament and to bring about the reelection of its ally Nouri al-Maliki as prime minister of Iraq.
As well as its continuing political subversion in Iraq for the purpose of designing the political order there to benefit Iran, Tehran continues to provide military aid and political support to pro-Iranian Shiite militias operating in Iraq. Essentially, this is deepening the gulf between the main Shiite elements (Muqtada al-Sadr and the senior Ayatollah Ali Sistani, who is one of the most influential figures in Iraq behind the scenes), bringing closer a violent struggle between those in Baghdad and southern Iraq.
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