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LARGER IRAN STRATEGIC CONTEXT BEHIND THE AMERICAN AIRSTRIKE IN BAGHDAD

Updated: Jan 10, 2020

THE LARGER IRAN STRATEGIC CONTEXT BEHIND THE AMERICAN STRIKE IN BAGHDAD


This piece is about the recent events in Iraq and as seen, the strike that killed a prominent Irani general is not where this story begins. While a clear starting point is difficult to pin down, for the compromise of ease and accuracy, this piece will look into a number of events, a brief explanation of context and a distinct history. Within this piece, I try best to use mostly think tank sources and non-controversial news sources. The links included certainly don’t constitute formal citations, but are rather gateways to further learning.


INTRODUCTION


In a recent attack conducted by the United States Government, an air strike was used to target a vehicle convoy at Baghdad International Airport. The strike resulted in no civilian casualties, but the deaths of multiple combatant targets. These included General Qasem Suleimani, the leader of the Quds Force which is the foreign operating wing of the Iran Revolutionary Guards Corp (IRGC). The IRGC is definitively not the military of Iran, but instead an organization who, using force, supports the theocracy itself. One of its roles for example is to prevent a military coup d'etat. The Quds Force, being the foreign wing, is meant to uphold the values of the theocracy by using military action outside of the country. These operations are conducted by direct combat of adversaries and assisting foreign allies. Such allies include foreign governments (Syria), abstract formations of semi-governmental militias (Hashd al Shabi/Popular Mobilization Forces) and designated terrorist organizations (Hammas). The support of its allies includes training, intelligence sharing, financing and the transfer of weaponry. General Qasem Suleimani led the Quds Force to the killing of American and allied troops. Worse than that, the Quds Forces has intentionally brought chaos and instability to the region, including Lebanon, Iraq, Yemen, the Palestinian Terratories and even the global energy market.


GENERAL QASEM SULEIMANI AND IRANI INFLUENCE IN THE MIDDLE EAST


General Qasem Suleimani was an internationally sanctioned terrorist and a top ranking official of the Irani government; these two designations are not mutually exclusive. He was one of the most divisive political figures in Iran and among the most powerful individuals in the country. His death will be mourned in some circles and praised in others, both in Iran and across the Middle East. With no statement of support, he was one of the top geopolitical military strategists of the modern Middle East. He was an important leader whose prowess will not easily be replaced. More than just know-how, the general was the most key player in the development of Irani Proxies. He acted as a central node in the larger network of Irani influence. His death may cause a downgrade in regional unity.


General Qasem Suleimani was the biggest target struck, but he wasn’t alone. Another prime figure was Abu Madhi al-Muhandis, a designated terrorist and a top leader of Iraq’s Popular Mobilization Forces (PMFs), a majority Shia Arab force with a short, but complicated past. The PMFs were unified and built from a set of militias in 2014 as a quick response system to the rise of the Islamic State. These militias were needed, especially in light of ill preparedness from the formal Iraqi military. The PMFs can be thought of as citizen’s brigades, initially compiled of untrained locals without other options for defense. As an untrained, unarmed, disorganized faction, they needed an experienced patron.


Iran was all too willing to help and was ideally positioned to assist. The Obama administration placed a priority on tackling the Islamic State using regional cooperation from both Sunni powers and Shia assistance. Whatever threat Iran had been viewed as from Western critics, the value that they had in combating the horrors of the Islamic State was prioritized. While direct authority from Tehran was valuable, Iran needed teams experienced in a ground game approach to network construction and military training.


The Quds force who had been operating in Syria, Yemen, Lebanon and the Palestinian Territories. The Quds Forces had spent the past decade transforming ramshackle terror/rebel groups into comparatively unified militias able to follow operational mission parameters. The most prime example of this is Houthi rebels in Yemen whose conquest of the capital, Sana’a has driven the country into catastrophic war that matches Syria in craze and calamity.


The Quds force depends on local leaders, such as tribal chieftains or religious figures. These intermediaries can act to recruit, organize and provide a foundational sense of authority. In Iraq, they had the perfect man for the job, Jamal Ja'far Muhammad Ali Al Ibrahim. He is better known by his kunya(familial name)/nomme de guerre, Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis.


THE OTHER BIG HIT: MUHANDIS’ COMPLICATED HISTORY


Muhandis was born in Southern Iraq to an Iraqi father and an Irani mother, speaking both Arabic and Farsi, the language of Iran. He was political from a young age and joined the Dawa Party in his early 20s, circa 1977. The Dawa party was a Shia religious party that countered Saddam Hussein’s secular nationalist Baath Party. In 1979, when the Irani Revolution took place, the Baath Party executed an aggressive campaign of persecution against Dawa Party members on a mass scale. To escape this persecution, Muhandis crossed the border of Iran to a newly burgeoning Shia theocracy that had set up a training camp for Iraqi political dissidents. After a few years, he began working with the IRGC. He traveled to Kuwait where he participated in bombings of the French and American embassies. Muhandis was tried in absentia in Kuwait and sentenced to death, though his flight once again to Iran, made the prosecution impossible. He soon joined the Quds Force as a special military advisor, participating in the organization of attacks against Baathist Iraq during the Iran-Iraq War.


Muhandis remained in Iran until the American led coalition overthrow of Saddam Hussein in 2003 which allowed for the return of the Dawa Party. He formed the militia, Kata’ib Hezbollah, active in attacking coalition forces. American forces, unaware of his return to Iraq, watched as a mysterious man acted as a security advisor to Ibrahim al-Jafarri, the first prime minister. It is not jumping to conclusions to assume that his stint as advisor allowed for a smooth rematricriculation into the same political party that had been disbanded a quarter century earlier. However, American forces did realize the identity of Muhandis two years later after he successfully won a seat as a Dawa Party choice for parliament. There, he represented the Babil Governorate, a long time power center for Shia resistance during the Saddam era. In 2006, the US government informed the administration of then Prime Minister, Nouri al-Malaki (Dawa Party) to the real identity of Muhandis.


Before punitive action could be taken against Muhandis, he once again fled to Iran. There he remained until the 2011 American troop withdrawal, prompting his return to Iraq. Since the return of Muhandis, the group has been arguably the most powerful and present Irani proxy in Iraq. The group has been at the center of fighting the Islamic State, but also combatting Peshmerga troops of the Kurdish Regional Government, supporting the Syrian regime and committing heinous acts against civilians.


Muhandis has had a clear proximity to some Dawa Party elites, but the support of the Dawa Party as a whole has been unclear. Muhandis was a figure that walked the line between the politically entrenched corrupt and a dangerous dissident that couldn’t be controlled. What is clear however, is that the Dawa Party has been losing ground in what has become a populous push back against corruption and foreign interference. Thousands of Shia and Sunnis protested on the streets of Arab Iraq’s major cities. Crackdowns of protests became violent using both formal military assets and informal militias. These crackdowns resulted in the deaths of hundreds. Unrelenting, popular protesters retaliated by committing acts of arson against Irani consulates in the Shia holy cities of Najaf and Karbala. It’s important to note that unlike Baghdad, the populations of Najaf and Karbala all almost entirely Shia, an indicator that protests were not an expression of identitarian tribalism or foreign manipulation.


Roughly three weeks later, Kata’ib Hezbollah, the militia founded and run by Muhandis used rocketry to attack an Iraqi military base where US military and civilian personnel were located. This attack resulted in the death of an American contractor. What made this attack interesting, though not unusual, was the fact of the attacker-victim dynamic. Kata’ib Hezbollah is one of many militias which make up the Popular Mobilization Forces. This semi-military group is meant to be reintegrated into the umbrella hierarchy of Iraqi federal government authority.


This means that one portion of the armed forces of the Iraqi government attacked the base of another portion of the armed forces of the Iraqi government. The reality however is that the Popular Mobilization Forces have had and continue to have a high degree of codependence on Irani experts and authorities such as the Quds force. It should be restated that the Popular Mobilization Forces are not homogenous. The religious makeup is mostly Shia, but there are Sunni and even Yazidi units. Most units are Arab, but there also Turkmen contingents. It is for this reason that making blanket statements on the PMFs can be misleading.


SHIA COMPLEXITY AND IRAQI PROTESTS


Even among the Shia units, the cohorts have complicated fidelities and priorities. Many joined the fight to protect their homes and families from the spread of the Islamic State. Many joined just for the paycheck. Some are secular Iraqi nationalists while others are legitimately Irani loyalist zealots. An important divide within the Shia population of Iraq and the Middle East as a whole is how the Ayatollahs are viewed. Yes, plural.


An Ayatollah is, simply put, a Shia Holy Man, well versed on religious text, Fiqh (Islamic Jurisprudence) and current events. Very few reach the post of Grand Ayatollah. The two most prominent Grand Ayatollahs today are Grand Ayatollah Sistani of Iraq and Grand Ayatollah and Supreme leader Ali Khamenei of Iran. These Grand Ayatollahs are less representatives of ethnic groups, and more so, backers of how religious thought intersects with the secular world. Ayatollah Sistani of Iraq is a proponent of an influence of religion on government while Ayatollah Khamenei is a proponent of theocracy, the religious clerical class being the ultimate reign holders of government. Ayatollah Khamenei is after all, the theocrat of Iran. While Iran does have many features of a democracy such as a multiparty parliament, the theocrat still has vast powers such as approving the legality of parties. Iran’s government structure is extremely complicated and equally frustrating as it is brilliant. It certainly warrants a separate and detailed explanation of its own.


What complicates the divide between those who follow Grand Ayatollah Sistani of Iraq and those who follow Grand Ayatollah Khamenei of Iran, is the level of activity each plays in larger society. Grand Ayatollah Kamenei is a day to day decision maker, religious leader and all around public figure. Grand Ayatollah Sistani on the other hand, though still highly respected and loved, is quite elderly and has suffered from declining health in recent years. He is often represented by a select few who deliver addresses on his behalf. With Grand Ayatollah Sistani’s declining health, his death will come sooner rather than later. Political maneuvering has been under way to prepare for the void that will be left behind by his passing.


The differences between these two figures can be seen as a fair microcosm of Iraq’s Shia population at large. Protesters on the street who are Shia seem to be more interested in the political philosophy of Grand Ayatollah Sistani, favoring less foreign interference from Iran. Many of the Shia Popular Mobilization Force militias seem to be dependent on Grand Ayatollah Khamenei’s Iran, of which Kata’ib Hezbollah is a clear example. The Dawa Party has been struggling to define its allegiance between the two forces and it is clear that corruption is a separate draw as well.


FURTHER INTO THE IRAQI PROTESTS


The recent protests across Iraqi cities during the late months of 2019 were about a number of issues, most notably corruption, political negligence, a bad economy and foreign interference. However, violent crackdowns against protesters by police, military and militias transformed the protests to a call of visibility and pressure. After much campaigning, the Shia Prime Minister Adil Abdul Mahdi, stepped down. Though Mahdi was officially independent of any political party, he had previously lived in Iran. There, he was a member of an exile government sponsored by and mirroring the host government of Iran. Mahdi was a highly respected figure in many circles; he spoke Arabic, Farsi and French and had been a well received academic for years. Questions as to Mahdi’s loyalties, activities and policies are hotly debated. A more reasonable speculation should be determined after investigations of corruption, foreign allegiance and his role in the violence surrounding the protests are conducted. A fair conclusion may be impossible in the current climate of unreliable information flow.


The short term win for protesters upon the Prime Minister’s resignation at the end of November launched the country into a “What Now” conundrum. No clear next step had been prepared for by protesters due to the nature of abstraction. The use of social media allowed for protesters to organize on the streets more than it allowed for them to form a regulated internal dialogue. With no organized internal dialogue, the formation of a vertical hierarchy or demacratic representation system, prevented a clear call for recourse action.


REGIONAL STRATEGY: DECONSTRUCTION OF TERROR NETWORKS AND THE SHIA LAND BRIDGE


Let’s first get back to this problem of the death of the American contractor. The United States Government felt that an appropriate response to the rocket attack would be the targeting of the headquarters of Kataib Hezbollah. Not only would this strike be a deterrent against future attacks on American and allied forces, the strike had other benefits for wider Western interests. By hitting the headquarters, Kata’ib Hezbollah lost an important organizational center for wider missions in the region. The headquarters is situated at the border of Syria and Iraq, on Route 12. Route 12 is arguably the most important highway in the region; it parallels the Euphrates river and as such, cuts through many large and historical cities. On the Iraqi side, Route 12 links to Route 1 where the large cities of Ramadi and Baghdad lie. The highway cuts through a predominantly Sunni area where attitudes towards Iran are not favorable. On the Syrian side, Route 12 changes name to Route 4, where it traverses south of Al-Raqqa, Deir al Zour and Aleppo, the largest city in Syria. All of these cities were hard fought for by the Assad Regime against Sunni rebels, Kurdish forces and the Islamic State. This is the ultimate route for transferring funds, weaponry, goods and human capital between Iran and Syria. It is a vital part of what is often referred to as the Shia Land Bridge, an asset for the Islamic Republic of Iran to move whatever is needed to proxies in Iraq, Syria and Lebanon. The stability of a reliable supply chain is dependent on Iran’s local partners maintaining a strong military presence around Route 12 and especially close to the Syrian border. The strike on Kata’ib Hezbollah, the militia run by Muhandis and advised by Qasem Suleimani, significantly undermined the reliability of that supply chain.


As a response, an organized effort was made to attack the US Embassy in Baghdad on December 31. Initial entrance was made into the compound, but US marines deployed tear gas and were able to repel further advance. Unlike Najaf and Karbala where Irani consulates were attacked by fellow Shia protesters in a Shia dominant city, Baghdad is of a mixed Sunni, Christian and Shia population. Reports differ as to the extent of affiliation of those who attacked the US Embassy in Baghdad. The range though is somewhat narrow; this group was mostly young Shiite men who were either highly supportive of, or outright composed of Popular Mobilization Forces. Due to the volume of protesters, with a high degree of confidence, it can be said that the crowd was likely mixed with a critical mass belonging to militias. Again, with a high degree of confidence, it can be said that leadership in the organization of the attack on the US Embassy consisted of General Qasem Suliemani, commander of the Quds Force and Abu Madhi al-Muhandis, commander of Kata’ib Hezbollah and Deputy Commander of all the semi governmental militias of Iraq. Not only did the image of an attacked American Embassy invoke images of the 1979 capture of the US Embassy in Tehran, it summoned images of the Kuwait City attacks carried out by Muhandis and the Quds Force in 1983. This is less a statement of evidentiary allegation and more noticing of the larger Modus Operandi of a long term institutional strategy. The tools of the Irani Revolution are ongoing and inherently anti-establishment. Irani action has been expressive of a willingness to break status quo norms such as the near sacred approach to autonomy of foreign embassies.


What is perhaps most brilliant or fortuitously unintentional about the attack on the American Embassy, is the quick shift in public conversation around foreign interference. Before the attack on the US Embassy, most of the dialogue on foreign interference was anti-Iran, including by many Shia protesters. The dramatic nature of such a bold retaliation shifted a good portion of imagery away from the anti corruption, anti-foreign interference, anti-establishment and anti-corruption protest and closer to a zeitgeist dominated by a more general anti-foreign interference sentiment. While many still viewed the anti-foreign interference as anti-Iran, America became more the center of attention than it was before.


Two days later, the United States Military killed Suleimani and Muhandis at the Baghdad International Airport in an airstrike on their joint vehicle convoy. The two men were killed together in Iraq, though neither Suleimani nor Muhandis (highly unlikely) were actually permitted to be in the country at all. No collateral damage or unintended casualties have been reported. In a statement by the US State Department, the convoy was struck not only as a retaliation, but as an inhibitor to future violence. Reports were issued that Muhandis and Suleimani/Quds Force were planning operations to kill American diplomats and other citizens.


ANALYSIS CONSIDERATION


For the sake of brevity, this article contains information at a medium degree of definition. I encourage you to review the links for more information. I have attempted to remove my bias as much as possible, but for the sake of language proficiency, only had access to certain information. I would have liked to include more Arabic, Farsi and even Kurdish sources to assist with balance. Please feel free to provide good faith commentary and critique in social media comment sections.


Ari Zahav is an experienced Middle East consultant and public speaker, focusing on the intersection of conflict and communications technology. He has worked across the Middle East and the United States.


For media inquiries, speaking requests and consulting, please email Ari@AriZahav.com

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