Rock Paper Scissors: Iran Occupies Iraq

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As the U.S. leads from behind, Tehran creates a Shiite arc of power. What could go wrong? 

While Washington focuses on Iran-U.S. nuclear talks, the Islamic Republic is making a major but little-noticed strategic advance. Iran’s forces are quietly occupying more of Iraq in a way that could soon make its neighbor a de facto Shiite satellite of Tehran.

That’s the larger import of the dominant role Iran and its Shiite militia proxies are playing in the military offensive to take back territory from the Islamic State, or ISIS. The first battle is over the Sunni-majority city of Tikrit, and while the Iraqi army is playing a role, the dominant forces are Shiite militias supplied and coordinated from Iran. This includes the Badr Brigades that U.S. troops fought so hard to put down in Baghdad during the 2007 surge.

“The irony is that critics long complained that the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003 created a strategic opening for Iran. But the 2007 surge defeated the Shiite militias and helped Sunni tribal sheikhs oust al Qaeda from Anbar. U.S. forces provided a rough balancing while they stayed in Iraq through 2011. But once they departed on President Obama’s orders, the Iraq government tilted again to Iran and against the Sunni minority.”

The Shiite militias are being organized under a new Iraqi government office led by Abu Mahdi Mohandes, an Iraqi with close ties to Iran. Mr. Mohandes is working closely with the most powerful military official in Iran and Iraq—the Iranian General Qasem Soleimani, the head of the Quds Force of the Revolutionary Guard Corps. Iran’s official news agency last week confirmed Western media reports that Gen. Soleimani is “supervising” the attack against Islamic State.

“The strategic implications of this Iranian advance are enormous. Iran already had political sway over most of Shiite southern Iraq. Its militias may now have the ability to control much of Sunni-dominated Anbar, especially if they use the chaos to kill moderate Sunnis. Iran is essentially building an arc of dominance from Tehran through Baghdad and Damascus to Beirut on the Mediterranean.”

This is the same general who aided the insurgency against U.S. troops in Iraq. Quds Force operatives supplied the most advanced IEDs, which could penetrate armor and were the deadliest in Iraq. One former U.S. general who served in Iraq estimates that Iran was responsible for about one-third of U.S. casualties during the war, which would mean nearly 1,500 deaths.

“Iran’s military surge is now possible because of the vacuum created by the failure of the U.S. to deploy ground troops or rally a coalition of forces from surrounding Sunni states to fight Islamic State. With ISIS on the march last year, desperate Iraqis and even the Kurds turned to Iran and Gen. Soleimani for help. The U.S. air strikes have been crucial to pinning down Islamic State forces, but Iran is benefitting on the ground.”

Mr. Soleimani recently declared that Islamic State’s days in Iraq are “finished,” adding that Iran will lead the liberation of Tikrit, Mosul and then all of Anbar province. While this is a boast that seeks to diminish the role of other countries, especially the U.S., it reveals Iran’s ambitions and its desire to capitalize when Islamic State is pushed out of Anbar province. Read the rest of this entry »