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Iraq War 2003: Background, Lessons and Follow-On

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August 24, 2004

How Iran Planned the an-Najaf Escalation in Iraq as Build-Up to Major Conflict

Analysis. By Yossef Bodansky, Senior Editor, GIS. The early August 2004 eruption of a new round of fighting in Iraq, first in Najaf and subsequently throughout the Shi’ite heartland of the country, was the result of a decision by the Iranian clerical leadership to escalate the Iraq insurgency through the further unification of the Sunni and Shi’ite Islamist-jihadist  forces, as well as the rejuvenation of the campaign of spectacular terrorism in Baghdad. Significantly, the outburst of violence in Najaf was not spontaneous; rather, it was the implementation of a series of key decisions reached in Iran between late May and late June 2004.

Earlier, in late May 2004, Tehran began to actively prepare for a new cycle of fighting, most likely to be launched toward the end of June 2004. This confrontation was designed to be so fateful as to warrant direct Iranian intervention on the side of the Iraqi Shi’ite forces.

Around May 20, 2004, Chairman of Iran’s Expediency Council, Ali Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani — the highest authority in formulating Iran’s strategic policies — formally proposed to the higher Iranian leadership that Iran sends “volunteers” to Iraq in order to carry out “qualitative operations” — euphemism for spectacular terrorism — against the US forces at the Shi’ite heartland. Hashemi-Rafsanjani argued that it was imperative “to fight the Americans in Iraq to foil the US plan for the region” that he believed would be detrimental to the fate of the mullahs’ Administration.

That these were not empty words was highlighted by the fact that there was a noticeable intensification in the activities in the Iranian system of bases in the Ahwaz area near the Iran-Iraq border, particularly the arrival of elite forces organized by Iran’s Al-Quds Corps. Most of them were volunteers from Khuzestan — Iran’s Arab-populated province — who are indistinguishable from Iraq’s Shi’ite population. The Ahwaz forward HQ was under the command of Gen. Ahmad Foruzandeh, a highly experienced veteran who has been involved in intelligence and subversion activities in Iraq for a long time.

Tehran had no illusions that its active support for the rejuvenated Shi’ite intifada would be noticed by the US. Hence, by mid-June 2004, Iran deployed four Army divisions toward its southern border with Iraq: the area bordering the Shi’ite heartland. The force included the élite Golden Division and a host of Special forces and intelligence elements. These divisions were deployed in the vicinity of Dezful in the Maysan sector, facing the Al-Amarah and Al-Basrah sector in Iraq; and in Shalamcheh, facing the southern parts of the Al-Basra sector in Iraq. As well, Iranian intelligence began infiltrating into Iraq numerous military intelligence units and teams which were making contacts with the Shi’ite militant elements in order to establish operational cooperation and coordination with the Iranian military units. (The Iranian build-up has continued unabated throughout the Summer and Tehran aims to reach at least 20 divisions by early Autumn 2004.)

Concurrently, Iranian intelligence completed in mid-June 2004 several lesson-learning studies of the first round of the Iraqi intifada which had taken place in April-May 2004. The most important such study was conducted in Iraq by a team of IRGC Intelligence and HizbAllah experts personally led by Imad Moughniyah. The Moughniyah team noted that the Iran-sponsored Shi’ite forces — spearheaded by Moqtada al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army — had a problem with the sustenance of seemingly popular operations. The Shi’ite leadership so far failed to establish a dispersed support base — that is, the providing of intelligence, food, medical services, shelter, etc. — for protracted conflicts.

Eager as it was to confront the US forces and their allies, and willing as it was to “embrace martyrdom” on a large scale, the Shi’ite population was incapable of sustaining itself for several weeks under conditions of violent confrontation and siege. This vulnerability of the Shi’ite population led to Tehran’s reluctance to commit high-quality HizbAllah-affiliated terrorist cells fearing the direct implication of Iran in anti-US operations. In contrast, the Moughniyah team stressed the growing militarization and radicalization of Iraq’s Sunni society and particularly the grassroots recognition of Moqtada al-Sadr’s war effort. All segments of the Sunni resistance demonstrated willingness to join forces with Shi’ites as well as to further solidify cooperation between the Islamist-jihadist and Ba’athist-Nationalist forces within the Sunni camp. (The latter trend reached a historic milestone on June 18, 2004, in the form of the meeting in al-Dur between Abu-Musab al-Zarqawi and Izzat Ibrahim al-Duri.

For details see Defense & Foreign Affairs Daily, June 21, 2004: Iraqi Ba’athist Forces Formally Submit to Islamist Control.

Meanwhile, even the initial Sunni-Shi’ite operational cooperation during the fighting sufficed for Tehran to launch a new round of contacts with the Sunni Islamist-jihadist leadership based in Iran. On the basis of these consultations with the al-Qaida senior commanders overseeing the operations in Iraq, Saudi Arabia, and the rest of the Middle East, Tehran committed to an all out effort to improve training and accelerate preparations for next round. Toward this end, in June 2004, the IRGC constructed in the Marivan area, in western Iranian Kurdistan overlooking the roads into central Iraqi Kurdistan, a major garrison dedicated for the sponsorship of Islamist-jihadist terrorism in Iraq.

An Arab mujahid with extensive experience with Iranian intelligence, and known only as “Sheikh Jamal”, was nominated the commander of the Marivan mujahedin. The instructors are a mixture of IRGC intelligence and special forces experts and Arab veterans of Iran’s al-Quds Corps. By mid-July 2004, the Marivan garrison included housing for over 1,000 troops and instructors, specialized training installations, underground storage bunkers for weapons and ammunition, as well as numerous open-air shooting ranges. About a 1,000 mujahedin were then transferred to Marivan from camps in the Mashhad area near the Iranian-Afghan border. They were joined by numerous al-Qaida mujahedin — mostly Iraqis, Saudis and Gulf Arabs — as well as Ansar-al-Islam Kurdish mujahedin who crossed over from Iraq.

Concurrently, IRGC intelligence opened a transit and a forward headquarters facilities in the Mehran area, in Ilam province on the border with Iraq overlooking the southeastern approaches to the greater Baghdad area and the northern flank of the Shi’ite heartland. The IRGC facility in Ilam controlled special teams of IRGC intelligence spread along the Iran-Iraq border from Halabjah in the north to Ilam in the south and established several border posts that facilitated both the smooth entry into Iran of mujahedin leaving Iraq and the safe smuggling back into Iraq of teams of expert terrorists. The mujahedin arriving from Iraq are transferred for security vetting at the Mehran transit facility before they are sent to training facilities inside Iran.

By late June 2004, convinced that the time was ripe to undertake concrete steps in Iraq, Tehran ordered high-level strategy formulation summit with the Islamist-jihadist leadership in order to decide on the modalities and schedules for the next escalatory phases in the guerrilla war in Iraq. Tehran specifically requested that Abu-Musab al-Zarqawi attend the summit. Therefore, after his visit to al-Dur, Zarqawi traveled to Iran through Kurdistan and crossed the border near Marivan. From there, he was taken to the western HQ of the IRGC al-Quds Corps near Kermanshah, in western Iran, where the summit took place. Other participants included Imad Moughniyah, IRGC Brig.-Gen. Qasim Suleymani (the operational leader of the Quds Corps who is in charge of the IRGC’s intelligence units and al-Quds Corps teams operating in Iraq and who has worked closely with al-Sadr and his forces since Sadr’s June 2003 visit to Iran [for details see The Secret History of the Iraq War, pp. 361-3]), Saad bin Osama bin Laden and Seif al-Adel (al-Qaida’s senior most commanders in Iran).

Ayman al-Zawahiri was originally expected to attend the summit but could not come because of his involvement in overseeing preparations for spectacular strikes at the heart of the US and Europe. He sent a senior aide with extensive experience in Iraq — Dr Mustafa Setmariam Nasser, better known as Abu-Hafiza — in his place. (In principle, Moughniyah maintains close ties with Zawahiri despite recent difficulties in communications in order to ensure close operational coordination in both Iraq and Saudi Arabia.) After the summit, Zarqawi stayed in Iran for about a month, closely supervising the activities in the IRGC facilities in both Mehran and Marivan. In late July 2004, Zarqawi was last seen in Marivan. Soon afterwards, Zarqawi and a few senior operatives of the Quds Corps crossed into northern Iraq with the help of IRGC Intelligence and are known to have safely reached the Islamist-jihadist networks in Baqubah.

The resolutions and significance of the Kermanshah summit were articulated by Brig.-Gen. Suleymani in an early August 2004 closed-address to a group of IRGC officials, faculty and students of the Higher Strategic and Defense Studies at the Imam al-Hoseyn University in Tehran. Suleymani stressed that despite the pronounced Sunni character of the Islamist-jihadist forces in Iraq, Zarqawi’s operations “serve the higher interests of the Islamic Republic of Iran” by depriving the US of the ability to win in Iraq. Suleymani stressed that the establishment of a federated secular Iraq cooperating with the United States is much more dangerous than Saddam Hussein’s former Ba’athist Administration because the Westernized Iraq would pose “a real threat to the pure Mohammedan revolutionary Islam and the velayat-e faqih [doctrine]”.

Therefore, Suleymani stated, it is imperative for Iran to closely cooperate with, and actively sponsor, any Islamist-jihadist forces committed to the uncompromising anti-US jihad even if it includes anti-Shi’ite elements in its ranks. He added that Zarqawi’s own involvement in anti-Shi’ite fratricidal fighting “was not confirmed” and therefore Tehran saw no reason to limit support for, and cooperation with, his forces.

The time was uniquely ripe for a major escalation, Suleymani explained. There were, he said, profound cracks in the security élite of new government in Baghdad and the US had so far failed to field viable Iraqi forces. Hence, the new government might even collapse under proper pressure. In any case, the mere continuation of the intifada required continued US fighting and casualties, a state of affairs Tehran considers to be politically debilitating for official Washington. Echoing Moughniyah’s findings about the Shi’ites’ operational potential, Suleymani anticipated the eruption of a widespread but not protracted Shi’ite intifada spearheaded by al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army. The urgent imperative to suppress this intifada would attract US and allied forces away from the Sunni heartland, thus creating conducive conditions for the Islamist-Jihadist launching of spectacular strikes of strategic significance.

Indeed, unfolding events bear Suleymani out.

First, after lengthy preparations, Moqtada al-Sadr unleashed his Mahdi Army in late July 2004. The heaviest fighting has been taking place in Najaf, with periodic eruptions in other cities throughout the Shi’ite heartland as well as concentrated attacks on the oil infrastructure throughout southern Iraq. As anticipated, the Shi’ite civilian population began losing their drive after a week of intense fighting as suggestions for negotiating truce were being floated in Najaf. Most important was the August 11, 2004, demand by Ibrahim Jaafari, Iraq’s interim vice-president, that Muslim forces should take over fighting the Shi’ite forces from the US-led occupation forces. “I call for multinational forces to leave Najaf and for only Iraqi forces to remain there,” Jaafari declared on al-Jazeera TV. “Iraqi forces can administer Najaf to end this phenomenon of violence in this city that is holy to all Muslims.”

Meanwhile, the Mahdi Army’s fighters sustained organized and disciplined fighting longer than expected and despite significant losses, a testimony to the quality of the Iranian IRGC and HizbAllah training and preparation. Then, in early August 2004, Zarqawi’s Jamaat al-Tawhid wa-al-Jihad began disseminating his “Winds of Victory” CD and video, stressing the horrible state of affairs in Iraq and anticipating the imminent ascent of the Sunni jihadist forces as the dominant force in Islamist Iraq. The video concludes with images of war with Zarqawi’s voice threatening horrific revenge on anyone who helped create this “conspiracy” — namely, the US-installed Iraqi Government — and promising not to rest “until the bereaved are saved and the dignity of the violated is avenged”. 

Meanwhile, all branches of the Iraqi resistance and their state-sponsors had every reason to be up-beat about the overall situation in Iraq. On August 11, 2004, “Muhib al-Mujahedin” [Lover of the Mujahedin], the moderator of the Baghdad al-Rashid Internet forum, posted a survey of “the latest developments [in Iraq] up till 10 August”. According to Muhib al-Mujahedin, “the resistance and mujahedin” already controlled 70 percent of the districts, cities, and towns throughout Iraq. “Rocket and encirclement units” marauding outside Iraq’s population centers now force the enemy forces to stay  inside their bases. Meanwhile, joint forces of the “General and Special Republican Guards” and “Al-Jihad wa-al-Tawhid” detachments were spread outside of most Iraqi cities and control major roads.

Most important were their roving ambushes and “rocket and artillery” groups which constantly targeted support and supply convoys as well as harass the enemy in their bases. By early August 2004, building on the initial success of the Shi’ite intifada, joint resistance forces increased their control over Baghdad in preparation for the forthcoming “decisive battle”. Muhib al-Mujahedin pointed to the growing desertions from the ranks of the police and security forces of “infidels and their agents,” as well as cooperation of those still in the ranks of these forces, as good indications of the impending collapse of the authorities in Baghdad. Meanwhile, he explained, there was growing pressure on the US, particularly from its closest allies in the industrialized world, to quickly resolve the Iraq crisis. Since oil production and exports from Iraq had nearly stopped due to widespread and persistent resistance attacks, the price of a barrel of oil was nearing 50 US dollars, claimed to be an intolerable economic burden on the industrialized west.

Ultimately, by August 20, 1004, Iran and al-Sadr won the Najaf intifada by forcing the modalities of the negotiations which both the Baghdad authorities and the United States were compelled to accept and recognize. Although all attention was focused on the meaningless interim truce or cease-fire (hudna), of crucial importance are the negotiated arrangements concerning the future of the Imam Ali Grand Mosque. Essentially, al-Sadr forced the Iraqi National Conference (INC) negotiators, and their American patrons, to accept a solution based on the velayat-e faqih doctrine and which legitimized the religious findings of both Grand Ayatollah Al-Sayyid Al-Sistani and Grand Ayatollah Al-Sayyid Kadhem al-Haeri (Sadr’s Qom-based mentor) as equally viable in Iraq.

On August 19, 2004, Ahmad al-Shaybani, spokesman for the Martyr Al-Sadr Office, stressed this aspect when explaining Sadr’s decision to compromise with the INC delegation. “There are many reasons that made Al-Sayyid Moqtada al-Sadr agree to the proposals of the delegation of the Iraqi National Conference. One of the most important reasons is a request to that effect by the religious authority. As you see and know, every Shi’ite, whether Moqtada al-Sadr, anybody else, or the Al-Mahdi Army in general, are bound to follow the orders of the religious authority. This particularly applies to two important religious authorities in Iraq, who are Al-Sayyid Kadhem al-Haeri and Al-Sayyid Al-Sistani,” al-Shaybani explained. He added that al-Sadr made his final decision on the basis of “a letter from Al-Sayyid Al-Haeri asking Al-Sayyid Moqtada to approve the proposals of the delegation of the National Conference. We have approved that and met our obligation.”

Thus, al-Sadr’s mere agreement to negotiate the fate of the Imam Ali Grand Mosque under these conditions in effect gave the pro-Iran Qom-based clerics at least an equal standing to the Najaf-based clerics among the Iraqi Shi’ite élite, the Baghdad political establishment, and the US Bush Administration. Significantly, the agreement over the Grand Mosque was accepted a week after Haeri had decreed the US to be the ultimate enemy of all Muslims in the tradition of Ayatollah Khomeini’s “Great Satan” virulent decrees, and demanded the eradication of the US-installed Government in Baghdad.

The religious intonations of the negotiations for Najaf and the Grand Mosque had immediate impact on the viability of the US-sponsored Iraqi forces. By mid-August 2004, the Iraqi forces preparing for an offensive against the Mahdi Army in Najaf were plagued by a desertion rate which exceeded 80 percent. The collapsing units included the CIA-controlled predominantly-Kurdish 36th Commando Battalion. This collapse deprived the US of the ability to deploy a token Iraqi-Muslim force as “the liberators” of Najaf and the Grand Mosque, thus having a fig-leaf legitimization for the US destruction and siege of Najaf.

By now, the United States has become virtually irrelevant to the emerging power structure in Iraq. US forces, and the US, are the object of hatred because of the indiscriminate heavy bombing and shelling that destroyed wide residential sectors of Najaf and inflicted heavy civilian casualties. The spread of heavy aerial bombing throughout the Sunni heartland, conducted in order to demonstrate US presence even though most of the US ground forces had been redeployed to the Shi’ite heartland to fight the intifada, only exacerbated the situation on the eve of yet another eruption of violence. 


Defense & Foreign Affairs Daily, August 20, 2004: Iran’s Clerics Attempt to Regain Control of Strategic Confrontation With US by Forcing the US Into a Direct War.

Defense & Foreign Affairs Daily, August 23, 2004: Further Indications of Iranian Leadership Preparations for War With US.