After the collapse of the Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) in northern and central Iraq the press started reporting that militias were mobilizing in Baghdad and other areas, and that the Iranian Revolutionary Guards (IRGC) Quds Force was sending in several hundred of its members to aid the Iraqi government. The fact is militias had been shifting their fighters from Syria and carrying out mass recruiting drives in Iraq since the beginning of the year far preceding the current security crisis. To help explain the situation is Phillip Smyth from the University of Maryland’s Institute for Advanced Computer Studies’ Lab for Computational Cultural Dynamics. He also writes Hizballah Cavalcade for Jihadology.
Funeral procession for Badr fighter killed in Samarra June 2014 showing the redeployment of Shiite militias from Syria to Iraq (via Phillip Smyth)
1. When did the Shiite militias first start moving back from Syria to Iraq?
This was a process that actually started around the same time that Nouri al-Maliki started his offensive in Anbar around Christmas time [December 2013]. The first real evidence that they were back in Iraq started in January with Asaib Ahl Al-Haq and Badr Organization deployments throughout the country.
2. In your article “Iranian Proxies Step Up Their Role in Iraq” for the Washington Institute for Near East Policy you wrote that the militias are forming popular committees and recruiting in Iraq. Can you talk about how they are recruiting people and any idea on how many people have joined?
Numbers are really hard to come by. If you just look at mainstream articles you can see that there are people lining up out the door. The thing is with the Iranian backed proxy groups that are in Iraq, they started recruiting long before Nouri al-Maliki and even the Sadrists really started any real efforts. That started in earnest around March or April 2014.
What they’ve done with the popular committees, and Badr has them, Asaib Ahl Al-Haq has them, others have them, is that they have separate recruitment centers in different cities from Baghdad to throughout the south. People just go in, state their name, they need to provide enough evidence that they are not an infiltrator, and that’s it. That’s how they’ve generally been organizing it.
Images of members of ISCI in SWAT and militias and Ammar Hakim after they said they would support the Defense Ministry against the insurgents (Buratha News)
ISCI head Hakim has been seen on TV and on social media in fatigues and firing an AK-47 showing his support for the military during the current security crisis
3. You’ve mentioned the well known militias but lately Ammar al-Hakim of the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq and Moqtada al-Sadr have issued statements about helping out the Defense Ministry and protecting the shrines, so are the larger more mainstream groups getting involved as well?
Those two have problems with Maliki and with the Iranian backed groups. Sadr is no fan of Asaib Ahl al-Haq. He just did a couple trips to Iran. Some people read that to mean that Moqtada is aligned with the Iranians, but after Syria I really don’t think so. The Iranians and their proxy groups have been trying to portray Sadr as being with them, and everything that they are promoting. He’s has been very vocal in saying that these are “foreign entities.” I even saw a fatwa that came out about one of the militia groups where he said that these are foreigners. There is a definite split there. That doesn’t mean they’re not talking. It doesn’t mean they don’t see the same problem, and that’s ISIS. A common example is that the United States did ally with Joseph Stalin to crush Adolf Hitler. If you think about it along those lines there are major shrines and major areas [that are threatened by ISIS]. They [Sadr and Hakim] would have to save face by at least doing new recruitment.
There’s been a progression on how this has been going. The Iranian backed groups started their recruitment first. Then Nouri al-Maliki announced one. The weird thing was there was a period right in between the Iranian backed groups’ announcement and Maliki’s announcements where Sadr came out and established new companies or brigades that were devoted to shrine defense. Now with the general recruitment [by the government going on] after Ayatollah Sistani’s announcement it means the momentum is there, and Hakim and Sadr can say they will do this, and they have to. This is not just a cynical power play. There is the existential threat of ISIS, and there’s no denying it. There’s the existential threat of the Naqshbandi coming back, the Baathists and other groups. They can’t really sit back and allow it.
Ali Reza Moshajari of the IRGC might have died in Iraq in June 2014 showing their presence on the ground in the country (Hizballah Cavalcade)
4. There have been recent reports that the Iranian Revolutionary Guard (IRGC) sent in some forces to Iraq. Have you seen anything about Lebanese Hezbollah doing the same?
Yes, but you have to know where to look. It’s not just something that’s floating out there. They know how to pitch it to comrades that are more accepting of Lebanese Hezbollah being on the ground there [in Iraq]. It’s only been pushed in a few different places. This is not something they really want out in the public. Of course Lebanese Hezbollah has Unit 3800, which was quite active during the early years of the Iraq War. It wouldn’t surprise me one bit if after over a year of fighting alongside, and being advisers and commanders for numerous Iraqi Shiite units in Syria that Lebanese Hezbollah in addition to the IRGC are on the ground assisting with a lot of these different processes. It’s basic logic that they would. The only problem is that when you’re dealing with groups that operate covertly I can’t say that I’ve seen Lebanese Hezbollah on the ground in Najaf and I know that they’re there with Iraqis, because they haven’t put that up. But I don’t think there isn’t some kind of deployment going on.
The numbers that were coming out like 130 IRGC in Iraq were interesting. I don’t know where this number came from, but again I think that the problem is people are not viewing this in context. They’re not viewing the current history and its decade long background. They say IRGC is just now in Iraq. IRGC has been in Iraq for decades. They had the Badr Brigade since the Iran-Iraq War. In the Badr Organization people have duel membership in IRGC. The same thing with people in Asaib Ahl al-Haq, it’s an IRGC controlled group. The big change is how this has become public. If you’re reading it in the Times of London or the Wall Street Journal where it’s been published it looks like this is a new big push, but people should have just expected this.
The really interesting thing is Washington’s response to this, which is they don’t like Iran’s presence, but there’s nothing they can really do about it. I think a lot is being lost there. You’re seeing very clearly that Maliki’s rump state is coming under IRGC guidance. Don’t let me downplay the fact that the masses of Shia in Iraq are not Iranian agents. That’s something I always hear. But in a lot of powerful places IRGC is controlling certain things. Just remember the entire recruitment program in Iraq for Syria, who ran that? Who ran all the militia groups? It was IRGC, it was Lebanese Hezbollah, it was their proxies in Iraq. They were recruiting normal Shia because they had created a narrative to do that. Now in Iraq the situation is a little different. They don’t have to do narrative building, because they have ISIS attacking stuff and blowing things up all the time. It’s easier for Iran to make their position coalesce around the official Iraqi government line and around more popular pushes to go fight. We’re kind of at a point where even if Sadr said he had disagreements with the Iranians he’s not going to say to them that he doesn’t want their guns, no he doesn’t want their help. It’s the theater of the absurd on that one. The levels of control are advancing within what’s left of the Iraqi state. I don’t think anyone can really deny that. It’s clear. When you see Badr members of parliament like Qasim al-Araji putting up pictures of him with General Qasim Suleimani about a week ago. Then he has another picture of himself in combat fatigues holding an AK there’s no clearer message. Iran has a long-term game plan and I don’t think enough people respect it. It’s not that they’re just focused upon ISIS, but they have long-term goals. What are those long-term goals? For Iraq as with the region, it is to kick the United States out one way or another. Simultaneously they spread their ideology, military umbrella, and take control. This crisis is a great opportunity to further those larger goals and even with the acceptance of the U.S. while doing it because there is a shared foe.
Badr MP Qasim al-Araji (right) photographed with IRGC Quds Force Commander Gen Suleimani (left) in Baghdad Jun 2014 (via Hayder al-Khoei)
Immediately after that meeting MP Araji posted this photo of himself in fatigues with an AK-47 (via Phillip Smyth)
5. Can you finish with Diyala province? It seems like Diyala is really important. Militias have been deployed there. It’s right on the border with Iran. Transportation Minister Hadi Ameri of the Badr Organization just got put in charge of security there. What’s going on?
Diyala has been a very interesting place. CNN actually reported that IRGC was fighting in Diyala. Now Diyala is right next to Iran, and beyond that it has been a nice recruiting center for Shia fighters heading for Syria. Not only is Badr controlling security there now, but Kataib Hezbollah has deployed there along with its popular defense brigades. I think when you see that level of Iranian proxy involvement there has to be some level of IRGC on the ground, particularly when it’s a border area. I think Diyala is another area to watch.
In terms of narrative development Samara in Salahaddin is the place to watch, because the shrines are there. That was one of the initial things that was pushed, particularly on line, the legitimate defense of the shrines and then there’s the defense of the homeland. These are the two different themes that have been promoted.
Militiamen handing out pictures of Ayatollah Khomeini in Baghdad June 2014 showing where their loyalties lie (via Aymenn Jawad al-Tamimi)
Chulov, Martin, “Iraq faces the abyss after its military melts away,” Guardian, 6/13/14
Hadi, Ahmad, “cousin against cousin: iraqi militias in anbar bloody family ties,” Niqash, 6/5/14
Institute for the Study of War, “Overt Shi’a Militia Mobilization in Mixed Areas,” 4/17/14
Karimi, Faith and Smith-Spark, Laura, “Iran sends forces to Iraq as ISIS militants press forward, official says,” CNN, 6/13/14
Smyth, Phillip, “Iranian Proxies Step Up Their Role in Iraq,” Washington Institute for Near East Policy, 6/13/14
Sotaliraq, “Jurf al-Sakhr front forgotten war in Iraq and the suffering of new entrants of Asaib Ahl Al-Haq,” 5/30/14