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Defense and Foreign Affairs Daily

IRAN & IRAQ

Special Report

( WITH THE PERMISSION OF GIS ) Volume XXII, No. 60 Wednesday, April 14, 2004 Founded in 1972 Produced at least 200 times a year

Special Report: New Iranian Deployments in Iraq; Sadr’s Mahdi Army Tests Coalition Forces; Questions Surround Syrian WMD Movement

Special Report

New Iranian Deployments in Iraq; Sadr’s Mahdi Army Tests Coalition Forces; Questions Surround Syrian WMD Movement

Analysis. By Jason Fuchs, GIS UN Correspondent. GIS sources noted in mid-April 2004 growing evidence of Iranian involvement in the Iraqi anti-Coalition “resistance” and described Iran as now being the “driving force” behind the burgeoning “Iraqi Intifadah”. In addition, GIS sources exclusively reported new Iranian deployments into Iraq over February and March 2004, which included a mix of some 500 to 1,000 Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC: Pasdaran), HizbAllah “expert terrorists”, and Iranian-trained Iraqi Shi’ite Islamists. Many, the sources said, had been moved across the Iran-Iraq border under cover of night during the two-month period. The February-March 2004 deployment by Tehran increased the total number of Iranian or Iranian-sponsored forces dispatched to Iraq since January 2004 to between 5,650 and 6,200.

GIS sources added that the Iraqi Shi’ite cleric, Moqtada Sadr’s, Mahdi Army now fielded close to 10,000 fighters; this included between several hundred and a few thousand “foreign experts”, including Iranian Pasdaran, HizbAllah operatives, and Afghan Shi’ites. Sadr is a relative of HizbAllah Secretary General Hassan Nasrallah and openly declared on April 4, 2004, that his movement was an extension of the Iranian-sponsored, Lebanese group. Sadr had already said in September 2003: “There is no harm in my being an extension of the Khomeini revolution.” As one GIS Iranian source noted in April 2004: “Sadr is a chess-piece in the hands of Tehran.”

Syria had also been active. In addition to its support for the Iraqi insurgency, Damascus had moved on multiple fronts:

1. In the event that Washington decided to focus international attention of Syrian WMD programs in the near future, Damascus undertook a major concealment and dispersal effort. GIS sources confirmed an April 9, 2004, Middle East Newsline report that the Syrian Defense Ministry had, since January 2004, been moving WMD components along with Scud-C and Scud-D extended-range missiles on civilian airliners to warehouses in Khartoum. Contrary to initial reports, though, GIS sources identified strong indications that Sudanese Pres. Umar Hasan Ahmad al-Bashir was, in fact, aware of the shipments or, at the very least, purposefully unaware. GIS sources acknowledged the possibility that some Iraqi WMD matriel may have been included in these shipments, but stressed this had yet to be confirmed.

[See Appendix, below: a 1998 report to the US Congress, entitled The Iraqi WMD Challenge: Myths and Reality.]

2. GIS sources confirmed that the Syrian Mukhabarat (Military Intelligence) had been involved in a joint al-Qaida-HizbAllah operation that had been prevented by Jordanian security forces in early April 2004. Jordanian authorities had captured four members of the cell involved in the planned attack on March 31, 2004, as they entered Jordan from Syria at the Rahmtha crossing in a pickup truck loaded with hundreds of kilos of explosives. Interrogation of the detainees had led to the April 10, 2004, capture of several other members of the cell who had made it into Jordan from Syria along with two cars reportedly filled with explosives, weapons, and bombmaking materials. An April 12, 2004, Associated Press dispatch reported that the suspects had bee apprehended in sweeps of Nuaimeh and Huwarah, villages outside Irbid. According to a credible April 2, 2004, report from the on-line intelligence service debka.com, which clearly has strong links to Israeli intelligence sources, the operation would have been claimed by HAMAS as revenge for the March 22, 2004, killing of their “spiritual leader” Sheikh Ahmed Yassin, although the Palestinian Islamist group would not have actually participated directly. The debka.com report had also claimed: “…the captured terrorists admitted that they had been assured they would not be bothered at the Syrian border crossing because the border guards had been told not to search the trucks.”

It remained doubtful through mid-April 2004 that the attacks by the Mahdi Army constituted a full-scale offensive by Iraq-based Iranian forces. Instead, the strikes appeared to be a test of a single component of the Iraq-based Iranian force structure designed to assess its readiness as part of the overall anti-Coalition campaign and, in the short term, convince the US electorate, in particular, and the Western populous, in general, that Coalition Forces were embroiled in an un-winnable “quagmire”.

The Mahdi Army’s April 12, 2004, abandonment of Iraqi police stations and government buildings in Najaf spoke to this fact. It was important to note, however, that this “test” could, if successful, swiftly be converted into the full-scale Iranian-sponsored anti-Coalition offensive that had been planned and prepared for more than a year. Substantial Iranian assets in Iraq remained untapped through the early April 2004 unrest. Among these, GIS sources noted, were the 29 warheads smuggled into Iraq from Iran in December 2003. As a February 24, 2004, GIS/Defense & Foreign Affairs Daily special report entitled Iran, Syria Evaluate Iraq Policy; Imad Mugniyah Removed But Additional IRGC, HizbAllah Inserted detailed:

In a sign that Tehran was fast preparing contingencies for the potential need to intensify the “jihad” against the US-led Coalition in Iraq, GIS sources confirmed reports in December 2003 that Kurdish forces had stopped a truck in northern Iraq inbound from Iran carrying a warhead holding some form of high explosives [not C4, as had been sporadically reported]. The Kurds interrogated the driver of the truck who admitted that 29 other such warheads had been successfully smuggled into Iraq from Iran, including around six that may have been chemical warheads. There had been some speculation that the chemical warheads might have been “recycled” Iraqi WMD, but GIS sources believed that all the warheads, WMD-capable or otherwise, were from the Iranian military arsenal.

According to GIS sources, indications were that the warheads remained in Iraq as of mid-April 2004.

The April 2004 introduction of kidnappings into the Iraq theater by the “resistance” marked a significant new development in the conflict that had been presaged by a December 17, 2003, GIS/Defense & Foreign Affairs Daily report headlined, Imad Mugniyah Now in Iraq; “Iraqi Resistance” Set to Evolve in Response to US Offensive, Capture of Saddam. That report stated:

Imad Mugniyah’s arrival in Iraq was indicative of Tehran’s increased rle, as well as the more focused direction that the insurgency would now take … The model for this new insurgency strategy would be based on the campaign waged by Iran, Syria, and the HizbAllah to evict US Forces from Lebanon from 1982-1984 that saw then US Pres. Ronald Reagan withdraw US Marines from the country in February 1984 …The terrorist offensive conducted by Tehran and Damascus with their HizbAllah proxy forces in Lebanon had also included the kidnappings of key foreign nationals. It could be expected that Tehran, Damascus, and Mugniyah would revert back to the tactics that had brought them such strategic gain in the early 1980s.

Although a variety of disparate jihadist groups had claimed credit for the kidnappings of foreign nationals in Iraq, it seemed that these operations were closely linked to Iranian and Syrian anti-Coalition activity with signs that Imad Mugniyah’s December 2003-January 2004 Iraqi sojourn may have been related to preparation for the April 2004 “hostage crises”. Tehran, Damascus, and their Islamist allies in Iraq [bin Laden linked or otherwise] would not have undertaken hostage-taking operations without a redundant support structure of safe-houses as had been the case in Lebanon’s Beqa’a Valley during the 1980s. While during the hostage-takings in Lebanon, Tehran had often moved prisoners into Iranian territory, it was not expected that the Iranian leadership would repeat this step in 2004, if only because such a move could only unnecessarily provoke Washington and the international community. This state of affairs emphasized the need for hostage-taking preparation within Iraq, which appeared to have been, at the very least, the partial purpose of Mugniyah’s trip. [A number of reports in early 2004 indicated that Imad Mugniyah had been “promoted” to the “number two” position in HizbAllah, beneath Secretary-General Sheikh Hassan Nasrallah but GIS sources stressed that Mugniyah remained the head of HizbAllah’s “special operations department”, for lack of a better term, taking orders directly from Tehran.]

The Mahdi Army offensive had opened in earnest on April 4, 2004, with attacks against Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) bases in Baghdad with subsequent attacks against Coalition and Iraqi Forces throughout Iraq the same day. The offensive included the seizure of five Baghdad police stations on April 4, 2004, (regained by Coalition Forces hours later), violent protests and street battles in Najaf where the Mahdi Army successfully attacked and assumed control of a Spanish-run, Coalition base at al-Kufra, and, continued early on April 5, 2004, with the seizure of the Governor’s office in Basra. The Mahdi Army would assume control of large segments of al-Kut, Najef, and Karbala by April 10, 2004.

Ostensibly, the nation-wide attacks came in response to the Coalition Provisional Authority’s (CPA) April 3, 2004, arrest of Sadr’s deputy, Mustafa al-Yaqoubi, in Najaf, and the March 28, 2004, closure of the Baghdad-based newspaper Al-Hawsa, published by followers of Sadr. These events, in fact, appeared to be only the public justification of the subsequent attacks; a justification aimed primarily at Western audiences and less at the local population. Sadr’s actions were instead a component of long-term Iranian efforts to subvert the Iraqi Governing Council (IGC) and CPA, force the withdrawal of Coalition Forces from Iraq, and remove the US Bush Administration from office in the upcoming November 2004 US presidential elections as part of Tehran’s broader grand strategy.

Iran may also have sought to respond strongly to the first reported direct US action against the Iranian build-up in Iraq: the expulsion of the Iranian charg d’affaires in Iraq, Hassan Kazemi Qomi.

According to an April 6, 2004, report in the London Arabic daily Al-Hayat, Qomi was “the recently appointed chief Iranian agent in Iraq” and an officer in the Pasdaran who had served in Lebanon, clearly alluding to Qomi having played a rle in the Iranian and Syrian sponsored anti-US insurgency in the early 1980s. The Al-Hayat report also noted that Qomi had been the consul-general in the Herat province of Afghanistan until December 2003 when Tehran ordered him to Baghdad. Herat had been a center of Iranian-sponsored anti-US activity in Afghanistan. An April 9, 2004, report by the Iranian Mehr News Agency, though, quoted a “political analyst” close to the IGC as having said the expulsion of Qomi was the result of “sharp differences between the Iraqi Interior Ministry and Coalition Forces.” The state-run Iranian news service appeared to be attempting to “save face” on what could potentially prove an embarrassing incident for official Tehran.

The build-up of Iranian or Iranian-sponsored forces in Iraq with the intent to attack and remove any Coalition-backed government from Baghdad had begun before the official beginning of Operation Iraqi Freedom on March 19, 2003, with the mid-February 2003 deployment of the Ayatollah Mohammed Baqer al-Hakim-controlled Badr Brigades into northern Iraq near the village of Banibee.

[See Defense & Foreign Affairs Daily, February 24, 2003: to Iran’s Iraqi Gambit: Tehran Decides Move Specifically Against the US.]

The subsequent break between Ayatollah Hakim and Tehran resulted in a major setback for Iran’s Iraq strategy; Moqtada Sadr, it increasingly appeared by early April 2004, had filled this void. Integral to Iranian planning for Iraq is the presence of an Iraqi Shiite face at the head of any anti-Coalition movement, regardless of the presence and extent of non-Iraqi involvement in such actions, in hopes of garnering necessary local Iraqi Shi’ite support that would prove tactically relevant even if in demographically small numbers relative to the entire Iraqi Shi’ite population, which remained staunchly opposed to any form of Iranian-style theocratic system in Baghdad. [Iraqi Shiite support for the Coalition and against the Mehdi Army was further confirmed by reports on April 10, 2004, that Shiite residents of al-Kut had greeted the Coalition’s re-taking of the city center by pouring back into the streets with cheers and waves of approval.]

Reports on April 12, 2004, indicated that moderate Iraqi Shiite leaders, including representatives of Grand Ayatollah ‘Ali Sistani, the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), and the Da’wa Islamiyya, were in negotiations with Moqtada Sadr regarding the possibility that he would renounce violence and accept exile in Iran. The US military leadership in Baghdad emphasized that it sought to “kill or capture” Sadr, but regardless of how events proceeded, Tehran had been forced to recognize the possibility that its foremost “Iraqi face” might soon be removed from the equation one way or the other.

While it was unclear how the Iranian leadership would respond, it did retain a prominent Iraqi Shi’ite cleric loyal to Tehran in the form of Grand Ayatollah Kazem al-Ha’iri. Ayatollah Ha’iri, in exile in Iran through mid-April 2004, maintained close relations with Sadr and had issued a fatwa on April 9, 2003, advocating action against the US and Coalition Forces in Iraq. [Ha’iri had also named Moqtada Sadr as his “personal representative” in Iraq in April 2003.] The Qom-based Iraqi ayatollah stood to play an increased rle in Iranian-sponsored Iraqi affairs if, in fact, Sadr was killed, captured, or exiled.

A number of regional reports on the Iranian rle in the April 2004 violence in Iraq had appeared in the Arab press in early April, including two notable reports in the London Arabic daily, Al-Sharq Al-Awsat. An April 3, 2003, interview with a former Iranian intelligence official in charge of activities in Iraq who recently defected, as GIS sources confirmed, detailed that “the Iranian money allocations for activities in Iraq, both covert and overt, reached $70-million per month”. The Iranian, who called himself Haj Sa’idi, added that 2,700 apartments and rooms had been rented in Karbala and Najaf to “serve agents of the Al-Quds Army and the Revolutionary Guards.” A separate source in the Quds Army subsequently told Al-Sharq Al-Awsat on April 9, 2004, that between 800 and 1,200 “young Sadr supporters have received military training, including guerilla warfare, the production of bombs and explosives, the use of small arms, reconnoitering, and espionage” at three Pasdaran-controlled camps in Qasr Shireen, ‘Ilam, and Hamid on the Iranian side of the Iran-Iraq border. The April 9, 2004, article also reported that the Iranian Embassy in Baghdad had distributed 400 satellite telephones to supporters of Sadr, and estimated that Iranian financial support to Sadr in “recent months has exceeded $80-million, in addition to the cost of training, equipment, and clothing of his supporters”.

US Pres. George W. Bush appeared to have strenuously avoided public acknowledgment of the rle of Tehran and Damascus in the Iraqi intifadah. Acknowledgement would force Washington to take action to address the changing threat. This, then, became a critical issue in an election year in the US, a fact of critical importance to both the Iranian clerical leadership and to Pres. Bush. The question becomes whether US acceptance of the Iranian/Syrian challenge would hurt or hinder Pres. Bush’s re-election chances.

 




 

 

 

 


 

 





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