November 23, 2017

Signs of Iran’s Hand in Iraq

Time
Mark Kukis
Baghdad
Posted: March 18, 2008

One of the armor-piercing roadside bombs in Iraq has a nickname among the militants who place the device. They call it the Najadia, a short variation on the long name of Iran’s president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. “My group and I believe honestly in fighting the Americans — and getting financial benefit out of it,” says Hussein Ali, an Iraqi Shi’ite guerrilla who recounted a journey to Iran for training in explosives in an interview with TIME. “We became very professional in planting and using the mine called BMZ2, which is a Russian mine modified in Iran for use against the American armor.”
Despite a drop in violence across Iraq, U.S. officials in Baghdad and Washington have kept up accusations against Iran, saying Tehran is involved in nothing less than training and funding a shadow army of Shi’ite militants set against U.S. forces in Iraq. In the face of these U.S. assertions, the Iraqi government publicly says it has no evidence of an Iranian training program for Iraqi militants. “We don’t have the proof that the American have,” says Iraqi government spokesman Ali al-Dabbagh. “Normally the intelligence information the Americans have is not allowed to circulate.” The issue was also not discussed, al-Dabbagh says, in official talks during Ahmadinejad’s recent visit to Baghdad, where the Iranian leader enjoyed a warm reception that reflected deepening ties between Iran and Iraq. Iran has offered unflinching denials of subversive and anti-U.S. activity in Iraq.
For months, a range of U.S. officials in Baghdad have repeatedly aired allegations against Iran in public while offering almost no convincing proof, arguing that doing so would reveal classified information. Military officials in Iraq have told TIME that militia fighters in U.S. custody have admitted to training in Iran during interrogations but refuse to give further details. However, recent interviews by TIME with Iraqi militants who recounted visits to Iran for training largely (though not perfectly) fit patterns described by American officials in Baghdad and Washington regarding Tehran’s role.
According to U.S. claims, Iraqi recruits from the Mahdi Army of Shi’ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr and other militias have traveled in groups numbering between 20 and 60 to Iran in a training program organized by the Quds Force that dates back to 2004. Handlers from the Quds Force, an elite paramilitary wing of the Iranian army, allegedly transport recruits to training camps near Tehran.
Ali, whose name is an alias, told TIME that there were indeed cells of fighters drawn from the ranks of the Mahdi Army who are now operating essentially at the behest of handlers and financiers with links to Iranian intelligence services. “They are gangs working under the name of Mahdi Army,” says Ali, who joined the Mahdi Army in 2004. “The real Mahdi Army has nothing to do with them.”
U.S. military officials view such cells as rogue elements of the Mahdi Army, making them viable targets of attack despite the prevailing cease-fire declared by Sadr. But the lines between Sadr’s militiamen and Iranian-backed operatives who emerge from those ranks are blurry at best in the murky world of Iraq’s guerrilla movement. Ali, himself a mainline Mahdi member, says he was taken to Iran for training and, in fact, continues to receive financial support from operatives linked to Iranian intelligence. During his interview with TIME, he did not discuss whether his Mahdi Army superiors knew any of this.

Once inside Iran, U.S. officials say, Iraqi volunteers hone skills needed to use armor-piercing roadside bombs, mortars and rockets against targets in Iraq. U.S. officials say, in addition, that Quds Force trainers, working at times apparently with experienced instructors from the Lebanese militia Hizballah, also instruct Iraqi recruits in intelligence techniques, sniper shooting and kidnapping operations before transporting them back across the border. Once in Iraq again, militants who have undergone Iranian training reportedly form cells that U.S. officials now refer to as “special groups.” These cells, say U.S. officials, continue to receive funds, weapons and direction from the Quds Force as they mount attacks in Iraq against American troops.
Ali’s own training in Iran came in late 2005, when he says he and a group of roughly 14 other Iraqis drove to the southern city of Amarah, near the Iranian border. Everything had been arranged through contacts in Syria and Lebanon, where he and his group had fled for a time trying to avoid capture by American forces. According to Ali, a convoy of new sport utility vehicles with drivers speaking only broken Arabic was waiting for them in Amarah. Soon the group was on the road east for a five-hour drive. The destination was an Iranian training facility, where instructors told the recruits not to speak to anyone but them. “We saw a lot of really strange people, a lot of men wearing very long beards,” Ali says.
Ali and four others were given training in advanced explosives with both lectures and hands-on practice. The course was done in 45 days. At the end, a handler talked to each of them separately and gave them a phone number to call in Iraq. Ali was given $10,000 in cash, he said, with a handler telling him the money was meant to support his efforts.
“I was shocked,” says Ali, who sat for an interview with TIME on the southern outskirts of Baghdad. “I never dreamed I would hold $10,000 in my hands.” The starter money, however, was only a “drop in the sea.” Ali says he continues to phone for funds with the contacts he made in Iran and that his group has conducted two successful roadside bomb attacks against American forces operating north of Baghdad.
Another Shi’ite guerrilla fighter interviewed by TIME offered a similar account, though he considered his group nationalist rather than sectarian. Says Abu Mohammed of his trainers in Iran: “They all speak perfect Arabic with a Lebanese accent. But we found out when we asked that they are either Quds Force or Iranian intelligence.” Mohammed and his group, however, later lost interest in attacking coalition troops and eventually parted ways with their Iranian handlers.
Last fall, U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Ryan Crocker suggested that Iran may be lessening its militant activities in Iraq. He pointed to the cease-fire by Sadr, speculating that Iran may have had a hand in convincing the Shi’a warlord to take that approach. Crocker noted that rocket attacks against the Green Zone had dropped and wondered aloud whether Tehran was being suddenly more cooperative in Iraq.
Now, however, most of that talk has fallen away. Gen. David Petraeus recently made a point of saying publicly that Iran continues to train Iraqi militants. “These are individuals with considerable skill who can train other individuals in Iraq,” said Petraeus, who spoke to reporters as he toured a border post in southern Iraq facing Iran. “It is a very unhelpful addition to the mix. We call it a lethal accelerant to a situation in Iraq that already has enough challenges.”
TIME’s staff in Iraq contributed to this article

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