Iraq War 2003: Background & Lessons

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February 24, 2003

Iran’s Iraqi Gambit: Tehran Decides to Move Specifically Against the US

Moves Result in Change in Correlation of Forces in Iraqi Kurdistan

Analysis. By Yossef Bodansky, Senior Analyst, GIS. It has become apparent from observed actions and intelligence sources that a significant shift of policy has been adopted by the clerical leadership in Iran. The Iranian clerical leaders have decided to actively undermine the US ability to consolidate a post-Saddam government in Baghdad.

Iran has already begun implementing this policy, deploying proxy Shi’ite forces into Iraqi Kurdistan and modifying the deployment of Iran’s own Armed Forces.

In January 2003, with the US onslaught on Iraq looming, Tehran embarked on intense strategy formulation to devise ways to compel Washington to recognize Iranian strategic interests in the region, and particularly prevent the US stifling of the mullahs’ Administration in the aftermath of the US war with Iraq. When repeated Iranian probing, especially in Western Europe, failed to deliver virtually any, let alone satisfactory, response from Washington, Tehran resolved to reconsider its policy.

Toward the end of January 2003, Iran’s Supreme Leader, “Ayatollah” Seyed Ali Khamene‘i, convened a secret high-level meeting in a building not usually associated with the Office of the Iranian Guide. The participants included loyal conservative clerics, representatives of the National Security Council and the intelligence community affiliated with the radical current, and Lebanese representatives of the HizbAllah’s security apparatus. Khamene‘i went to extra effort to attempt to ensure the complete secrecy of the meeting so that reform-minded officials or clerics could be excluded.

The topic of the meeting was the future of Shi’ites in the Middle East, not just in Iran, but also in Iraq, the Arabian Peninsula and Lebanon. A senior official from Khameni’s office briefed the meeting that “the ultimate aim” of the US conspiracy against Shi’ite Islam “would be not only the collapse of the mullahs’ rule in Iran but also the removal of the seat of Shi’ite authority from Qom to Al-Najaf in Iraq”. Senior IRGC and Intelligence officials stressed that this development “greatly embarrassed” official Tehran and especially Khamene‘i since he had personally instructed the Iranian negotiators to notify Iraqi National Congress (INC) leader and key Iraqi opposition leader Ahmad Chalabi — a Shi’ite — during a recent visit to Tehran that Ayatollah Muhammad Baqir al-Hakim and SCIRI (the Supreme Council of the Islamic Revolution in Iraq) would be authorized “to open all channels of alliance with the Americans against Saddam Hussein”.

That move was to lead to secret negotiations with Washington  “over a deal regarding the future of Shi’ites in and outside Iraq” in a US-dominated Middle East. The Iranian security élite now felt betrayed by the US policy and regional plans.

The meeting resolved to reach out to Baghdad in order to jointly examine modalities for resisting the perceived US conspiracies. Consequently, on February 9, 2003, Iraqi Foreign Minister Dr Naji Sabri arrived in Tehran at the head of a delegation comprised of intelligence officials at the invitation of Iranian Foreign Minister Dr Kamal Kharrazi. The declared objective of the visit was holding “talks on bilateral relations and means of promoting them between the two neighboring Islamic countries based on good neighborliness and joint interests”. Both Iranian and Iraqi officials involved in the talks stressed that the real goal of the visit was “to discuss developments in the regional and the international situation in light of the US threats to carry out an aggression against Iraq and the region as well as the dangers posed to the region’s security”.

Significantly, Sabri convinced Tehran that Saddam’s Iraq constituted a far lesser threat to Iran than the US schemes and machinations.

Consequently, Tehran resolved to work to thwart US designs, albeit without getting involved in the war directly. Tehran’s change of strategic priorities was immediately aired in a series of briefings by the uppermost leaders.

Iran’s new strategy was first elucidated by former President Ali Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani, the country’s chief strategist. In a few sermons and speeches delivered to select audiences on February 12, 2003 — during Eid al-Adha — Hashemi-Rafsanjani repeatedly stressed that for Tehran “the worst scenario [is] Iraq ruled by a US ‘puppet’”, and therefore, everything must be done to ensure that “the US [is] not allowed to remain in the region” in the aftermath of the war with Iraq (which Tehran now considers to be inevitable). The alternative — the stifling and collapse of the clerical Government — was inconceivable to Tehran, and all available means, from terrorism to sparking a regional war, were to be utilized in the struggle to prevent Khomeini’s dream-state from withering away.

The intensity of Tehran’s alarm was best expressed by Khamene‘i in an address to hajj officials — mostly intelligence officers — who had just returned from Saudi Arabia. “The democracy that the Americans claim they want to offer to Islamic and Arab countries is as destructive as their bombs and missiles,” Khamene‘i said. He described the overall strategic and historic threats looming over Iran as a result of the imminent US war with Iraq.

“Global imperialism — that is, the closely-knit network of oil cartels, arms manufacturers, world Zionism, and their ally governments — threatened by the awakening of the Islamic Ummah, is in a state of aggression accompanied with panicky moves. This aggression, which has political, media, military and terrorist dimensions, is today clearly visible in the violent and unabashed conduct and statements of the militarists in charge of the United States government and the Zionist regime,” Khamene‘i explained.

According to Khamene‘i, US aggression was manifested through a coordinated effort at three focii.  In the first focal point, he explained, “Palestine, oppressed and drenched in blood, is a daily victim of the most ruthless measures of the usurper regime.” in pursuit of the second focal point, “the people of Iraq receive threats of war because the US regime considers it necessary to establish itself in Iraq and take the destiny of its people into its hands and, as a consequence, the destiny as well of all countries of the Middle East, in order to establish its control over the vital flow of oil and to plunder the remaining oil resources of this region and to establish an effective presence close to the borders of Palestine, Iran, Syria and Saudi Arabia.” And in pursuit of the third focal point, “the people of Afghanistan were made to feel the brunt of American and British bombs and weapons of mass destruction for the past year and several months with their soul and body and to suffer the humiliating presence of their occupying forces because the US administration has chosen to define its illegitimate interests in these terms.”

Khamene‘i stressed that these three focii constituted the springboard for the US quest “to be the absolute sovereign and dictator of the Muslim countries of the region in the current half century. The extravagant international objectives and plans of the United States are all indicative of this arrogant yet stupid ambition”.

Although Khamene‘i had no doubt about the ultimate outcome of this confrontation, he urged resolute action by all Muslims. “There is no doubt that the United States and its allies will fail and once again the world will witness the collapse of a powerful yet drunken emperor, as we saw that his miscalculations came out wrong in Palestine and Afghanistan. However, if the Muslim Ummah, the states and the peoples, do not take timely, wise and courageous decisions, they will suffer heavy damages which will take a long time to remedy,” he warned. “With the pretext of defense of democracy and war against terrorism [the US] addresses a tirade to Muslim nations condemning chemical arms and weapons of mass destruction.”

The initial results of the Muslim world’s reaction were encouraging, Khamene‘i noted. “The arrogant and imperialist United States has not realized its objectives in Palestine and Afghanistan, and its stupendous financial and human outlays have brought it nothing but loss. It will be the same story in the future, God willing.”

The US forthcoming attack on Iraq should be assessed in the context of this greater conspiracy, Khamene‘i emphasized. He stressed that “in the case of Iraq, the US claims that its objective is elimination of Saddam and the Ba’athist regime. This is, of course, a lie. Its real aim is to appropriate OPEC and to swallow up the region’s oil resources, to offer a closer support to the Zionist regime and to plot more closely against [the] Islamic Iran, Syria, and Saudi Arabia. That which is certain is that in case of American control of Iraq, with or without war, the primary victim of this hostile occupation will be the Iraqi people and the honor, dignity and wealth of that historic nation. But if the people of Iraq and the neighboring nations are vigilant, the US will not attain these objectives either, God willing.”

In mentioning “neighboring nations”, Khamene‘i for the first time alluded to Iran’s direct rôle in confronting the US.

Khamene‘i concluded his address with a passionate statement of the inherent danger to all Muslims and Islam from the rise of US presence and influence in their midst. “Islam is a religion of freedom, justice and quest for truth. Real democracy is religious democracy established on the basis of faith and the sense of religious duty. As witnessed in the case of Islamic Iran, it works in a manner much more reliable, sincere and democratic than in democracies such as that of the United States. The democracy that the Americans claim they want to offer to Islamic and Arab countries is as destructive as their bombs and missiles. When the enemy offers us even a date, one cannot be sure that it has not been soaked in fatal poison. The Muslim Ummah has experienced the truth of this in Africa, Middle East and West Asia recurrently in the past as well as in the more recent years,” Khamene‘i concluded.

His listeners — all veteran intelligence officers — knew there was no turning back after such a sermon.

Khamene‘i’s position was reiterated forcefully on February 17, 2003, in a public speech.

Referring to the unfolding Iraqi crisis, Khamene‘i declared: “You can see what is happening on the issue of Iraq. The Americans are explicitly saying that they want to go to Iraq and put in power an American ruler at least for a period of two years. This reveals the Americans’ true character. That is what they want in their heart of hearts. They are not satisfied with less than that. They will not be satisfied with installing an Iraqi ruler who is their own puppet. They want to feed an entire nation, country, and collectivity which contains human, monetary, and financial resources to the greedy and avaricious Zionist companies and world power centers. They are not satisfied with anything less than that. That is what they want. Of course, these days, their demands cannot be met. Yes, perhaps 100 or 150 or 70 years ago, the colonialists could do such things. They were capable of doing such things. They did such things in Africa and Asia. They took advantage of the ignorance of nations, their lack of information and backwardness. They did that in India, Algeria, and Latin America. They could do that those days. However, today, they are making a mistake. American rulers are making a mistake. One cannot talk about such things today.”

By now, the Iranian defense establishment was already implementing the leadership’s orders.

“Iran is faced with a wide spectrum of threats, including a foreign military aggression, which requires the Islamic Republic to adopt appropriate security measures to defend itself,” Defense Minister Rear-Admiral Ali Shamkhani told the Siasat-e Rouz on February 18, 2003. “Some of the threats before the Islamic Republic are a foreign aggression, war, border skirmishes, spying, work of sabotage, regional crises falling out from the proliferation of mass destruction arms, organized crime and state terrorism,” he added. “Thus, the Islamic Republic of Iran, in its defense and security doctrine, has put ‘confronting threats’ and ‘defusing them’ as the key basis of its policies.” Shamkhani qualified that “the deterrent defense (policy) means that we will never take any offensive step... We are trying to boost our resistance against the first strike of the enemy ... and then maintain this resistance. Thus, the Islamic Republic’s objectives are defensive.” It is in pursuit of this defensive doctrine, Shamkhani stated, that Iran “is fiercely opposed to any military showdown in the region, including a probable US attack on Iraq”.

The next day, Shamkhani ordered that “Iran’s airspace and land borders would remain closed to America, even if the UN should endorse [the American attack on Iraq].” Alluding to a decision to intercept by force US airspace violators, Shamkhani told senior officers that Iran would “not allow any American mistake to take place over our country’s airspace. In view of the fact that the Americans are economical with the facts on their technical capabilities, we shall stop their mistake promptly and decisively, should it occur over the Iranian airspace.”

Most significant was the change in the position of SCIRI regarding the forthcoming war and its aftermath. On February 17, 2003, SCIRI leader Ayatollah Muhammad Baqir al-Haqim declared that Iraq’s Shi’ites “will not back the United States” in the confrontation with the Saddam Hussein Administration. “We reject the idea of a regime of the infidels governing Iraq,” he stated. “We categorically reject this form of administration for our country. If the United States respects the opinions and aspirations of the Iraqi people, it must set aside its plans.” Another leading member of SCIRI, Abdolaziz Hakim, stressed that there would not be any confluence of interests between the US and SCIRI. “Even if the regime in Baghdad is not toppled, we will continue with our resistance. America’s plans for Iraq are different than ours. We have our own strategy and tactics in resisting the Ba’athist regime,” he stated.

With that, Tehran went into action. Starting mid-February 2003, some 5,000 Iraqi-Shi’ite and Iranian-Arab troops of Imam Baqir al-Hakim’s al-Badr Corps crossed into northern Iraq from Iran. This unit — highly trained, well armed and totally controlled by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC: Pasdaran) — changed the correlation of forces in Kurdistan. Thus, even before either the US or Turkey could attempt to seize control of Iraqi Kurdistan, Iran had a trustworthy proxy force already in place at the heart of Kurdistan. Significantly, Iraq’s Armed Forces did not intervene as the al-Badr forces moved around.

On February 18, 2003, Abdolaziz Hakim strenuously denied reports that the al-Badr Corps would cooperate with the US military once the war started. “The al-Badr Corps is active in Iran, Northern Iraq as well as Iraq proper in underground cells. Their aim is the long-held desire of the Iraqi people, which is the liberation of their country from the menace of Saddam Hussein. However, the al-Badr Corps is dependent on Iranian policy. We abide by the decisions of the Iranian Government,” Hakim explained. He stressed that the al-Badr Corps “would not join the US-led coalition for invading Iraq” but instead “would become active when it is appropriate to prevent further harm to the Iraqi people and toward the realization of Iraq’s national security and other interests.”