Leaked Reports Detail Iran’s Aid for Iraqi Militias
By MICHAEL R. GORDON and ANDREW W. LEHREN
On Dec. 22, 2006, American military officials in Baghdad issued a secret warning: The Shiite militia commander who had orchestrated the kidnapping of officials from Iraq’s Ministry of Higher Education was now hatching plans to take American soldiers hostage.
What made the warning especially worrying were intelligence reports saying that the Iraqi militant, Azhar al-Dulaimi, had been trained by the Middle East’s masters of the dark arts of paramilitary operations: the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps in Iran and Hezbollah, its Lebanese ally.
“Dulaymi reportedly obtained his training from Hizballah operatives near Qum, Iran, who were under the supervision of Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps Quds Force (IRGC-QF) officers in July 2006,” the report noted, using alternative spellings of the principals involved. Read the Document »
Five months later, Mr. Dulaimi was tracked down and killed in an American raid in the sprawling Shiite enclave of Sadr City in Baghdad — but not before four American soldiers had been abducted from an Iraqi headquarters in Karbala and executed in an operation that American military officials say literally bore Mr. Dulaimi’s fingerprints.
Scores of documents made public by WikiLeaks, which has disclosed classified information about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, provide a ground-level look — at least as seen by American units in the field and the United States’ military intelligence — at the shadow war between the United States and Iraqi militias backed by Iran’s Revolutionary Guards.
During the administration of President George W. Bush, critics charged that the White House had exaggerated Iran’s role to deflect criticism of its handling of the war and build support for a tough policy toward Iran, including the possibility of military action.
But the field reports disclosed by WikiLeaks, which were never intended to be made public, underscore the seriousness with which Iran’s role has been seen by the American military. The political struggle between the United States and Iran to influence events in Iraq still continues as Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki has sought to assemble a coalition — that would include the anti-American cleric Moktada al-Sadr — that will allow him to remain in power. But much of the American’s military concern has revolved around Iran’s role in arming and assisting Shiite militias.
Citing the testimony of detainees, a captured militant’s diary and numerous uncovered weapons caches, among other intelligence, the field reports recount Iran’s role in providing Iraqi militia fighters with rockets, magnetic bombs that can be attached to the underside of cars, “explosively formed penetrators,” or E.F.P.’s, which are the most lethal type of roadside bomb in Iraq, and other weapons. Those include powerful .50-caliber rifles and the Misagh-1, an Iranian replica of a portable Chinese surface-to-air missile, which, according to the reports, was fired at American helicopters and downed one in east Baghdad in July 2007.
Iraqi militants went to Iran to be trained as snipers and in the use of explosives, the field reports assert, and Iran’s Quds Force collaborated with Iraqi extremists to encourage the assassination of Iraqi officials.
The reports make it clear that the lethal contest between Iranian-backed militias and American forces continued after President Obama sought to open a diplomatic dialogue with Iran’s leaders and reaffirmed the agreement between the United States and Iraq to withdraw American troops from Iraq by the end of 2011.
A Revolutionary Force
Established by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini after the 1979 Iranian revolution, the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps has expanded its influence at home under President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, a former member of the corps, and it plays an important role in Iran’s economy, politics and internal security. The corps’s Quds Force, under the command of Brig. Gen. Qassem Soleimani, has responsibility for foreign operations and has often sought to work though surrogates, like Hezbollah.
While the American government has long believed that the Quds Force has been providing lethal assistance and training to Shiite militants in Iraq, the field reports provide new details about Iran’s support for Iraqi militias and the American military’s operations to counter them.
The reports are written entirely from the perspective of the American-led coalition. No similar Iraqi or Iranian reports have been made available. Nor do the American reports include the more comprehensive assessments that are typically prepared by American intelligence agencies after incidents in the field.
While some of the raw information cannot be verified, it is nonetheless broadly consistent with other classified American intelligence and public accounts by American military officials. As seen by current and former American officials, the Quds Force has two main objectives: to weaken and shape Iraq’s nascent government and to diminish the United States’ role and influence in Iraq.
For people like General Soleimani, “who went through all eight years of the Iran-Iraq war, this is certainly about poking a stick at us, but it is also about achieving strategic advantage in Iraq,” Ryan C. Crocker, the American ambassador in Iraq from 2007 until early 2009, said in an interview.
“I think the Iranians understand that they are not going to dominate Iraq,” Mr. Crocker added, “ but I think they are going to do their level best to weaken it — to have a weak central government that is constantly off balance, that is going to have to be beseeching Iran to stop doing bad things without having the capability to compel them to stop doing bad things. And that is an Iraq that will never again threaten Iran.”
Politics and Militias
According to the reports, Iran’s role has been political as well as military. A Nov. 27, 2005, report, issued before Iraq’s December 2005 parliamentary elections, cautioned that Iranian-backed militia members in the Iraqi government were gaining power and giving Iran influence over Iraqi politics.
“Iran is gaining control of Iraq at many levels of the Iraqi government,” the report warned.
The reports also recount an array of border incidents, including a Sept. 7, 2006, episode in which an Iranian soldier who aimed a rocket-propelled grenade launcher at an American platoon trying to leave the border area was shot and killed by an American soldier with a .50-caliber machine gun. The members of the American platoon, who had gone to the border area with Iraqi troops to look for “infiltration routes” used to smuggle bombs and other weapons into Iraq, were concerned that Iranian border forces were trying to surround and detain them. After this incident, the platoon returned to its base in Iraq under fire from the Iranians even when the American soldiers were “well inside Iraqi territory,” a report noted. Read the Document »
But the reports assert that Iran’s Quds Force and intelligence service has turned to many violent and shadowy tactics as well.
The reports contain numerous references to Iranian agents, but the documents generally describe a pattern in which the Quds Force has sought to maintain a low profile in Iraq by arranging for fighters from Hezbollah in Lebanon to train Iraqi militants in Iran or by giving guidance to Iraqi militias who do the fighting with Iranian financing and weapons.
The reports suggest that Iranian-sponsored assassinations of Iraqi officials became a serious worry.
A case in point is a report that was issued on March 27, 2007. Iranian intelligence agents within the Badr Corps and Jaish al-Mahdi, two Shiite militias, “have recently been influencing attacks on ministry officials in Iraq,” the report said.
According to the March report, officials at the Ministry of Industry were high on the target list. “The desired effect of these attacks is not to simply kill the Ministry of Industry Officials,” the report noted, but also “to show the world, and especially the Arab world, that the Baghdad Security Plan has failed to bring stability,” referring to the troop increase that Gen. David H. Petraeus was overseeing to reduce violence in Iraq. Read the Document »
News reports in early 2007 indicated that a consultant to the ministry and his daughter were shot and killed on the way to his office. The March report does not mention the attack, but it asserts that one gunman was carrying out a systematic assassination campaign, which included killing three bodyguards and plotting to attack ministry officials while wearing a stolen Iraqi Army uniform.
The provision of Iranian rockets, mortars and bombs to Shiite militants has also been a major concern. A Nov. 22, 2005, report recounted an effort by the Iraqi border police to stop the smuggling of weapons from Iran, which “recovered a quantity of bomb-making equipment, including explosively formed projectiles,” which are capable of blasting a metal projectile through the door of an armored Humvee. Read the Document »
A Shiite militant from the Jaish al-Mahdi militia, also known as the Mahdi Army, was planning to carry out a mortar attack on the Green Zone in Baghdad, using rockets and mortar shells shipped by the Quds Force, according to a report on Dec. 1, 2006. On Nov. 28, the report noted, the Mahdi Army commander, Ali al-Sa’idi, “met Iranian officials reported to be IRGC officers at the border to pick up three shipments of rockets.”
A Dec. 27, 2008, report noted one instance when American soldiers from the 82nd Airborne Division captured several suspected members of the Jaish al-Mahdi militia and seized a weapons cache, which also included several diaries, including one that explained “why detainee joined JAM and how they traffic materials from Iran.” Read the Document »
The attacks continued during Mr. Obama’s first year in office, with no indication in the reports that the new administration’s policies led the Quds Force to end its support for Iraqi militants. The pending American troop withdrawals, the reports asserted, may even have encouraged some militant attacks.
A June 25, 2009, report about an especially bloody E.F.P. attack that wounded 10 American soldiers noted that the militants used tactics “being employed by trained violent extremist members that have returned from Iran.” The purpose of the attack, the report speculated, was to increase American casualties so militants could claim that they had “fought the occupiers and forced them to withdraw.”
An intelligence analysis of a Dec. 31, 2009, attack on the Green Zone using 107-millimeter rockets concluded that it was carried out by the Baghdad branch of Kataib Hezbollah, a militant Shiite group that American intelligence has long believed is supported by Iran. According to the December report, a technical expert from Kataib Hezbollah met before the attack with a “weapons facilitator” who “reportedly traveled to Iran, possibility to facilitate the attacks on 31 Dec.” Read the Document »
That same month, American Special Operations forces and a specially trained Iraqi police unit mounted a raid that snared an Iraqi militant near Basra who had been trained in Iran. A Dec. 19, 2009, report stated that the detainee was involved in smuggling “sticky bombs”— explosives that are attached magnetically to the underside of vehicles — into Iraq and was “suspected of collecting information on CF [coalition forces] and passing them to Iranian intelligence agents.” Read the Document »
A Bold Operation
One of the most striking episodes detailed in the trove of documents made public by WikiLeaks describes a plot to kidnap American soldiers from their Humvees. According to the Dec. 22, 2006, report, a militia commander, Hasan Salim, devised a plan to capture American soldiers in Baghdad and hold them hostage in Sadr City to deter American raids there.
To carry out the plan, Mr. Salim turned to Mr. Dulaimi, a Sunni who converted to the Shiite branch of the faith while studying in the holy Shiite city of Najaf in 1995. Mr. Dulaimi, the report noted, was picked for the operation because he “allegedly trained in Iran on how to conduct precision, military style kidnappings.” Read the Document »
Those kidnappings were never carried out. But the next month, militants conducted a raid to kidnap American soldiers working at the Iraqi security headquarters in Karbala, known as the Provincial Joint Coordination Center.
The documents made public by WikiLeaks do not include an intelligence assessment as to who carried out the Karbala operation. But American military officials said after the attack that Mr. Dulaimi was the tactical commander of the operation and that his fingerprints were found on the getaway car. American officials have said he collaborated with Qais and Laith Khazali, two Shiite militant leaders who were captured after the raid along with a Hezbollah operative. The Khazali brothers were released after the raid as part of an effort at political reconciliation and are now believed to be in Iran.
The documents, however, do provide a vivid account of the Karbala attack as it unfolded.
At 7:10 p.m., several sport utility vehicles of the type typically used by the American-led coalition blocked the entrance to the headquarters compound. Twenty minutes later, an “unknown number of personnel, wearing American uniforms and carrying American weapons attacked the PJCC,” the report said.
The attackers managed to kidnap four American soldiers, dragging them into an S.U.V., which was pursued by police officers from an Iraqi SWAT unit. Calculating that they were trapped, the militants shot the handcuffed hostages and fled. Three of the American soldiers who had been abducted died at the scene. The fourth later died of his wounds, the report said, and a fifth American soldier was killed in the initial attack on the compound.
Summing up the episode, the American commander of a police training team noted in the report that that the adversary appeared to be particularly well trained. “PTT leader on ground stated insurgents were professionals and appeared to have a well planned operation,” the report said.