Associated Press | January 12
In the eyes of most Iraqis, their country’s best ally in the war against the Islamic State group is not the United States and the coalition air campaign against the militants. It’s Iran, which
is credited with stopping the extremists’ march on Baghdad. Shiite, non-Arab Iran has effectively taken charge of Iraq’s
defense against the Sunni radical group, meeting the Iraqi gov- ernment’s need for immediate help on the ground.
Two to three Iranian military aircraft a day land at Bagh- dad airport, bringing in weapons and ammunition. Iran’s most potent military force and best known general—the Revolution- ary Guard’s elite Quds Force and its commander Gen. Ghasem Soleimani—are organizing Iraqi forces and have become the de facto leaders of Iraqi Shiite militias that are the backbone of the fight. Iran carried out airstrikes to help push militants from an Iraqi province on its border.
The result is that Tehran’s influence in Iraq, already high since U.S. forces left at the end of 2011, has grown to an unprecedented level. …
The meltdown of Iraq’s military in the face of the extremists’ summer blitz across much of
northern and western Iraq gave Iran the opportunity to step in. A flood of Shiite volunteers joined the fight to fill the void, bolstering the ranks of Shiite militias already allied with Iran.
Those militias have now been more or less integrated into
Iraq’s official security apparatus, an Iraqi government official said, calling this the Islamic State group’s “biggest gift” to Tehran. “Iran’s hold on Iraq grows tighter and faster every day,” he said, speaking on condition of anonymity because he was not autho-
rized to discuss the sensitive subject.
Over the past year, Iran sold Iraq nearly $10 billion worth of
weapons and hardware, mostly weapons for urban warfare like assault rifles, heavy machine guns and rocket launchers, he said. The daily stream of Iranian cargo planes bringing weapons to Baghdad was confirmed at a news conference by a former Shiite militia leader, Jamal Jaafar. Better known by his alias Abu Mahdi al-Mohandis, Jaafar is second-in-command of the recently cre- ated state agency in charge of volunteer fighters.
Some Sunnis are clearly worried. Sunni lawmaker Moham- med al-Karbuly said the United States must increase its support of Iraq against the extremists in order to reduce Iran’s influence.
“Iran now dominates Iraq,” he said.
Equally key to Iran’s growing influence has been a persistent
suspicion of Washington’s intentions, particularly among Shiite militiamen. …
The praise does not just come from Shiite politicians. …
U.S. Army Gen. Martin Dempsey, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said Iraqi leaders have kept the U.S. informed about Ira- nian activities against [the Islamic State], and that Washington is watching the relationship carefully.
He said if the two countries grow closer economically or polit-
ically, “as long as the Iraqi government remains committed to inclusivity of all the various groups inside the country, then I think Iranian influence will be positive.”
But Ali Khedery, a top U.S. official in Iraq from 2003 until 2009, warned that Iranian influence will be “strategically catastrophic.” “It further consolidates Iran’s grip over the Levant and Iraq,”
said Khedery, who resigned in protest over U.S. failure to thwart Iranian influence.
Iran’s sphere of influence extends to neighboring Syria, where it has stood by President Bashar Assad’s regime against the mostly Sunni opposition, and to Lebanon, where its main proxy, Hezbollah, is that nation’s most powerful group. Also, the Shiite
Houthi rebels’ takeover of parts of Yemen in recent months has raised concerns of Iranian influence there.
The signs of Iran’s weight in Iraq are many. The prime minis- ter, the Sunni parliament speaker and other top politicians have visited Tehran. Most senior Iraqi Sunni politicians have stopped publicly criticizing Iran and vilifying Shiite politicians for close ties to Tehran.
On billboards around Baghdad, death notices of Iraqi mili- tiamen killed in battle are emblazoned with images of Iran’s late spiritual leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, and his successor, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. Last month, an unprecedented number of Iranians—estimated at up to 4 million—crossed into Iraq to visit a revered Shiite shrine south of Baghdad for a major holy day. Visa charges for the Iranians have been waived. …