Last week, protestors in the Iraqi city of Basra set fire to the local Iranian consulate, in an apparent expression of frustration with Tehran’s interference in their country. Recently released transcripts of the U.S. military’s interrogation of the Iraqi insurgent Qais Khazali do much to shed light on how the Islamic Republic gained influence in Iraq even as the country was under American occupation. The leader of one of several Iran-backed militias known as the “special groups,” Khazali was captured by British commandos in 2007, released by the U.S. in 2009, and now leads a political party with fifteen seats in the Iraqi parliament. Bill Roggio writes:
The special groups were paramilitary units embedded in [the Shiite religious leader] Muqtada al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army. Sadr has long been a Shiite powerbroker in southern Iraq. The newly released files confirm that Khazali, who worked for Sadr, came to view his superior as a rival. They also confirm that Sadr’s Mahdi Army received funding, weapons, training, and advice from Iran and its chief proxy, Lebanon’s Hizballah. The Shiite militants primarily targeted coalition forces, killing hundreds of American soldiers. Khazali himself led such operations. . . .
The interrogations thus come across as shortsighted. Little effort was made to exploit Khazali’s knowledge of the petty jealousies and rivalries within the Mahdi Army and among various Shiite factions. And virtually nothing was done to target the network of training camps, weapon-supply hubs, and other infrastructure inside Iran that supported the Shiite militias. Iran never paid a price for its meddling in Iraqi affairs and its direct responsibility for the deaths of hundreds of American soldiers, even though Tehran’s culpability was obvious. . . .
Khazali . . . and his militia never laid down their arms. He would later lead a portion of his militia into Syria to fight alongside Bashar al-Assad’s regime, at the behest of [Qasem] Suleimani, the commander of Iran’s Quds Force. By 2014, the militia was battling the Islamic State, as well as terrorizing Iraqi minorities in areas it liberated from Islamic State. . . .
As with Hizballah, the Iranian-backed Iraqi militias are more than paramilitary formations. They are political actors and scored a major victory in Iraq’s parliamentary election in May. Running as the Fatah Alliance, they finished second behind Muqtada al-Sadr’s Saairun Coalition and will likely ally with Sadr’s party in parliament. While Sadr maintains a degree of autonomy, Qais noted repeatedly in his interrogations that Sadr and his men were supported in various ways by the Iranians. These two Iranian-backed movements will form the next Iraqi government and select the next prime minister.