Skip to content

Iran Is Fighting A Ground War In Iraq

October 22, 2014

Iraqi Shia Militia

For seven days last month Iran observed its Sacred Defense Week, an annual commemoration of the Iran-Iraq War’s beginning.

Remembered as the Imposed War by Iran, the grinding trenches, epic battles, and poison gas that defined the conflict killed or maimed up to a million Iranians and set back the national economy for years.

But the almost decade-long war fought from 1980 to 1988 now has a sequel in the same theater, albeit with a more colorful cast.

Ever since the Islamic State (IS) or ISIS launched its gambit to establish its own ill-defined country in June a tide of resistance has coalesced against it.

While round-the-clock publicity follows US airstrikes that are part of its Inherent Resolve campaign (76 days and counting), there is less scrutiny on everyone else attacking IS.

“Everyone else” includes Iran’s advisers and proxy militias on the ground.

Ground Control

Although the regular Iranian military, one of the largest if poorly equipped in the Middle East, hasn’t deployed inside Iraq, since late June a flood of news reports provided ample evidence the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and the Quds Force are participating in multiple battles in Northern Iraq.

The most tangible and recent proof, of course, can be found online. Separate stories this month from IHS Janes and War Is Boring have photographs of Iranian weapons in Iraqi hands.

Other accounts suggest Qasem Suleimani’s role commanding Iraqi Shia fighters in the small battles to retake territory from IS.

Suleimani himself  is a veteran of the Iran-Iraq war and later orchestrated the insurgency against the US in Iraq and directed Iran’s campaigns in Syria’s civil war.

There are few hard numbers or public commentary to rely on which reveal the extent of  Iran’s current role in Iraq.

According to Stanford University’s own database on extremist groups in Iraq, only four factions maintain active ties to Iran: the Mahdi Army, the Promised Day Brigades, Badr Organization, and the Asa’ib Ahl al-Haqq.

Even the powerful Islamic Dawa Party of former Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki isn’t a complete front for Tehran since it essentially represents the aspirations of Iraqi Shias, who are the majority.

This much can be gleaned from news sources, however. So far, Iran has delivered at least three Su-25 ground attack fighters, unspecified munitions for mortars and recoilless rifles along with entire Quds Force units. Whether Iran is also flying drones to gather intelligence on IS can be assumed despite a lack of evidence.

Grim Prospects

There is an emerging consensus that without IS’ excesses, Iraq would remain in a state of civil war because of  its various militias–some of whom aided IS’ success.

The Institute for the Study Of War (ISW) confirms this in its latest monthly report. The ISW’s on-the-ground research reveals how disenfranchised Sunni militias are the main cause of the unrest in provinces like Anbar and Sala-ah-din/Saladin.

“All of these groups facilitated the recent advances led by ISIS,” the ISW concludes.

In August, Amnesty International published Absolute Impunity: Iraq Under Militia Rule, a damning expose of Shia atrocities against Sunnis.

The takeaway here is underlying the broader fight against IS is the continuation of the 2006-2008 sectarian civil war. This is happening against a backdrop of Iran bolstering its influence across three countries, namely Iraq, Syria, and Lebanon.

Meanwhile, as Iraq’s bloodshed continues, the absence of a political compromise between its militias guarantees further carnage.