Iran: Filling the Void in Iraq

The Mullahs try to replace America’s role as U.S. combat forces evacuate.

Last week, the U.S. removed its last full combat brigade from Iraq, bringing troop levels down to about 50,000. The withdrawal comes as the Iraqi political parties struggle to form the next government and Iran increase its efforts to control Iraq. The war isn’t over; it’s just entered a new phase.

Iran and Syria’s meddling in Iraq went into overdrive around the time of the Iraqi elections in March. The Iranians were funding two religious Shiite parties, the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq and the Sadrist Movement $9 million and $8 million per month respectively. Posters criticizing Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and indicating Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani had endorsed the religious parties were printed in Iran and set up in Iraq.

The Iranians are particularly fearful of the al-Iraqiya bloc led by former Iraqi Prime Minister Iyad Allawi, a pro-American opponent of Syria and Iran. Allawi is a secular Shiite who formed an alliance with the Sunnis. Despite Iran’s best efforts, the pro-Iran religious parties lost in a huge landslide and Allawi’s bloc came in first place with al-Maliki’s bloc closely behind him.

An Iranian opposition group called the National Council of Resistance of Iran reported that Iran was planning to stop Allawi from coming to power and if he did, to instigate sectarian warfare. The group claimed it had obtained a secret document where a commander from the Revolutionary Guards’ Al-Qods Force in Baghdad boasted of carrying out 400 operations in Iraq.

Since the election, three members of Allawi’s bloc have been assassinated and several others have had attempts made on their life. Unnamed “local groups” and “regional parties” were blamed for an attempt to assassinate Allawi that was foiled with the help of neighboring Arab countries. Damascus hosted an Iraqi Baathist conference in April to try to unite the two factions. A group called Iraqi Hamas took part in the bombing of Shiite mosques and in kidnappings and murders, and Iraqi Hezbollah has stepped up attacks on Coalition and Iraqi forces. General Odierno stated that Iran is helping three Shiite extremist groups attack American bases. And recently, Abu Dura, a notorious Iranian-backed militia commander known for brutally killing thousands of Sunnis, has returned to the country.

At the same time, Iran is trying to play kingmaker as the Iraqi parties try to form a government. Iyad Allawi has actually met with Moqtada al-Sadr, the extremist militia commander who currently resides in Iran, in an attempt to get his backing in forming the next government. With al-Maliki and Allawi unable to come to a compromise, Iran’s allies in Iraq are offering themselves as the ones whose support can bring about political victory if they are included in the government coalition.

“In the end, the [Iraqi] politicians need to become more responsible, and that is something that is hard to legislate,” Dr. Larry Diamond, who was a senior advisor to the Coalition Provincial Authority that ruled Iraq following the overthrow of Saddam Hussein, told FrontPage.

Unfortunately for Iran, the U.S. withdrawal of combat forces doesn’t mean a significant change in the status quo. President Bush was actually the one to reach an agreement with the Iraqi government in 2008 mandating the withdrawal of combat forces from Iraq’s cities by July 2009 and a total withdrawal by December 31, 2011. The success of the surge has allowed the withdrawal to be safely completed ahead of schedule.

Kenneth Pollack, Director of the Brookings Institution’s Saban Center for Middle East Policy writes that the remaining 50,000 soldiers are simply being renamed to “advisory and assistance brigades” but will still carry out counter-terrorism operations in support of the Iraqi forces when necessary. They will be train and advise the Iraqi security forces and play a secondary role just as they had before the withdrawal.

“It’s more or less what they have been doing since the ‘clear and hold’ operations to take back the country from militias and insurgents ended in 2008,” Pollack wrote.

A senior counterintelligence officer that served two tours in Iraq told FrontPage that “Overall, I believe that Iraq is capable of standing on their own.” General Odierno agrees with him, saying that “They have been doing so well for so long now that we really believe they are beyond that point [of completely collapsing].”

“I think it will be difficult for Iran and Syria to capitalize on our (partial) withdrawal. We won’t withdraw to the point where we cannot take on any problem that the government of Iraq can’t handle,” the source said. He also added that many Iraqis that go to Iran for training to carry out attacks just take Iran’s money and then find other jobs when they return home.

Matthew Degn, a former Senior Policy Advisor to Iraq’s Interior Ministry and Director of the Intelligence Studies Program at American Military University, is less optimistic.

“I imagine the US military pullout will have a great affect on Iranian and Syrian behavior. It will likely be much easier for them to aid those Intelligence agents bent on influencing the Iraqi government, as well as other covert interests already in place within Iraq,” he told FrontPage.

“With the motley collection of private agendas, competing affiliations, and personal vendettas existing among the Iraqi ruling elite handicapping the government from working together, the current regime will likely be quite fertile for cross border/outside interferences.”

The U.S. withdrawal of combat forces from Iraq may not significantly affect the military situation in Iraq, but the political situation is still tenuous. Iran is determined to destabilize Iraq and if not prevent its opponents from coming to power, at least neuter their ability to stand up to the regime. As the U.S. departs Iraq, Iran will try to fill the void.