On Tuesday the northern Iraqi city of Mosul fell to to fighters from the jihadist group Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS), as Iraqi army forces fled. On Wednesday the militants seized Tikrit, which is 95 miles north of Baghdad, and fighting has been reported as far south as Samarra. The group’s origins lie in the merging of two Al-Qaeda offshoots: the Syrian rebel group Jabhat al-Nusrah, and The Islamic State of Iraq. Hayder al-Khoei, associate fellow at the London think tank Chatham House, spoke to IranWire from Baghdad.
What has been Iran’s level of threat-perception following these attacks?
It’s extremely high. They are worried that this is going to give ISIS a further stepping stone, and act as a launching pad for the rest of Iraq. [Iran] has mobilized in very high numbers Shia militia forces loyal to Iran, especially the AAH militia, the Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq. Just a few hours ago some friends confirmed that the [Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps] General Qassem Suleimani is in Baghdad. He arrived yesterday. I think his presence in the capital is a sign of just how seriously the Iranians are taking the ISIS threat.
He was reported to have gone to the checkpoints on the outskirts of Baghdad to make sure that the Iraqi armed forces and the Shia militias that are acting as the paramilitary support units are ready, and capable of defending the city. It was also reported that he went to Balad, north of Baghdad, and Samarra, where ISIS was thwarted by the armed forces. Certainly the Iranians are taking this extremely seriously. The mobilization of the Shia militias, and Qassem Suleimani’s presence, is a very good indication of how seriously they’re taking this.
They were crucial in preventing Damascus from falling, and other Syrian cities. Baghdad is a lot closer to home for the Iranians, and they’ve told their Shia partners, ‘Iraq is our backyard.’ Certainly they’ll take much more care of Baghdad, even more so than Damascus.
What do we know about ISIS’s intentions towards the Shia shrines in Iraq?
ISIS have, and want to, attack Shia symbolic shrines, because that way they can provoke not just the Shia militias into retaliating, but ordinary Shia civilians. If that happens, it could trigger another sectarian and civil war. Even in Mosul, on their official Twitter pages, they were telling the people of Mosul they are safe under their hand, except for the Shia, so they are extremely opposed ideologically to the Shia, and see them as apostates, not Muslims.
The ISIS official spokesman, [Abu Muhammad] al-Adnani said to Maliki and the Iraqi government, we’re not going to settle our score with you in Samarra and Baghdad, we’re going to settle our score with you in [the Shia holy cities of] Najaf and Karbala.
Now of course it’s going to be much harder [for ISIS] to penetrate the cities of Najaf and Karbala, because the people there, unlike in Mosul, [support] the armed forces, and on top of that you have Shia militias who will prevent anything similar to what we saw in Falluja, Mosul and Tikrit.
In Baghdad and the south it’s a different story. There’s a lot of media hype about ISIS capabilities and ISIS gains, and I don’t want to downplay the ISIS threat, but the people in the capital and the South are going to be much more willing to defend their cities, and the armed forces along with the militias are going to be much more prepared to die. In Mosul the armed forces had no will to fight at all.
The Shia militias—Asa’ib Ahl al-Haq, Hezbollah, the Badr Brigades—these are all ideologically-driven militias, so they will fight to the death, unlike the army units in the north of the country.
What is the popular sense in southern Iraq of Iranian involvement? Are people looking to Iran as a savior, or are they wary of Iranian influence?
As you know, there is an ideological difference between the Shia of Iraq and the Shia of Iran. The religious establishment in Iraq and Iran don’t see eye to eye when it comes to the role of the clergy in the state. But in the south there is a sense—it’s not as desperate as in Baghdad—but the Shia in general now recognize the important [role] that the Iranian Revolutionary Guard are going to play in making sure that their cities do not fall to ISIS. They may not like the Iranians, they may be ideologically opposed to the Iranians, but in terms of threat perception, it’s a matter of survival.
Are the Shia militias that seek to oppose ISIS drawn exclusively from inside Iraq, or are there Iranian members?
No. I wouldn’t be surprised in the slightest if there are Iranian Revolutionary Guards forces in Baghdad acting as [advisors] for the military. But almost exclusively, the militias are young Iraqi Shia, not Iranians. But as I said, Qassem Suleimani is in Baghdad today, so clearly they are here. But the actual fighters are Iraqi Shia.
What level of Iranian involvement do you expect to see?
So far the Iraqi government which is of course backed by Iran is doubling efforts to open recruitment centers in the capital and in southern cities. The government has called on volunteers to turn up at these recruitment centres, to be provided with arms. I’m also hearing reports of Iranian calls for recruitment centers to be opened in Iran [so] Iranians can come to Iraq and fight. However at this stage I think it’s very much political and symbolic. I don’t think there’s going to be a serious effort by Iranians to come into Iraq. It’s a gesture to say that what’s happening in Iraq is dangerous not just for the Iraqi government, but for the Iranian government as well.
What relationship do you see between Iranian involvement in Iraq now and Iranian involvement in Syria?
Syria has given us a pretty good indication of how willing Iran is to support its allies, and Iraq and Baghdad is much more strategic to the Iranians, so I think we can expect more of the same in Iraq if the situation becomes out of control.
How have these events affected the Iranian view of the Maliki government?
The Iranians it seems—and I’ve spoken to officials from various parties in Iraq—very much seem to be supporting Maliki, and telling their other Shia partners to sort out their political mess in house because Iraq is their backyard. The Iranians are trying extremely hard behind the scenes, through back channel talks, to make sure the Shia remain as a united bloc. The Iranians are telling the Iraqi Shia parties—all of them—that the unity of the Shia bloc is a red line. They do not want to see the Shia bloc splitting up.
The current situation is going to benefit Maliki politically because it’s forced even his Shia rivals to publicly call for supporting the armed forces. Maliki now is going to be more important to the Iranians than ever before, as someone who can stabilize the country.
What is the prevailing view of Iran among Iraqi politicians?
It depends which politicians—Sunni politicians, Shia politicians. The Iranians are a reality and a force on the ground, and I think all Iraqi politicians accept this as fact, that ‘Iran is our neighbor, Iran is our strong political ally.’
Of course, the Iraqis would like to see more engagement from the Americans, and not just providing ammunition or rifles or Humvees. Repeatedly in the past, they’ve asked the Americans to provide missile-equipped drones that can target ISIS positions in the desert. Up until now the Americans have consistently refused. Recent developments may force the Americans to rethink their strategy, [and] possibly provide such equipment to the Iraqis, or run [an Iraq drone program] themselves. It remains to be seen if they’re going to shift. Obama for a very long time now has wanted to forget about Iraq, I think these events are going to force the president to stop ignoring Iraq, at the very least.
The more frustrated Iraqis become with the lack of support coming from the United States, I think it’s going to force them to rely more heavily on the Iranians.