GIS Special Topical Studies
Iraq War 2003: Background, Lessons and Follow-On

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February 24, 2004

Iran, Syria Evaluate Iraq Policy; Imad Mugniyah Removed But Additional IRGC, HizbAllah Inserted

Arafat Also Orders Resumption of Suicide Attacks

Analysis. By Jason Fuchs, GIS UN Correspondent. There were strong indications by late February 2004 that both Iran and Syria were undertaking extensive evaluation of their essentially joint policy on Iraq. At the same time, Palestinian Authority (PA) Pres. Yasir Arafat, apparently working in coordination with Tehran and Damascus, directly ordered a resumption of suicide attacks against Israeli targets.

In particular, Tehran and Damascus seemed to be exploring new ways to intensify the Iraqi insurgency in order to achieve a number of short-to-medium-term strategic goals, including:

  1. The furthering of the perception of a military “quagmire” in the eyes of the US public in order to increase pressure on the US Bush Administration to withdraw US Forces from Iraq.

  2. The destabilization of the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA)-sponsored Iraqi Governing Council (IGC) and the planned June 2004 transition to Iraqi sovereignty.

  3. Making the US situation in Iraq sufficiently painful and unsuccessful so as to influence US Presidential elections in November 2004 and remove the US Bush Administration from office.

To these ends, since January 2004, GIS sources reported that Tehran had deployed some 5,000 Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC: Pasdaran) troops from the IRGC’s al-Quds Brigades to Iraq. GIS sources added that a detachment of between 150-200  “expert terrorists” from the Lebanese-based, Iranian-controlled group HizbAllah had been dispatched to the Iraqi theater, as well, within the same timeframe.

The early 2004 deployment by Iran and its surrogate, HizbAllah, came as GIS sources noted the removal of Lebanese HizbAllah chief Imad Mugniyah from Iraq at some point in January 2004. On December 17, 2003, a Defense & Foreign Affairs Daily report entitled Imad Mugniyah Now in Iraq; “Iraqi Resistance” Set to Evolve in Response to US Offensive, Capture of Saddam noted:

GIS sources confirmed in mid-December 2003 that the Lebanese HizbAllah chief Imad Mugniyah — intimately linked with his major patron, the clerical Government of Iran and its Revolutionary Guard Corps (Pasdaran) — was now operating in Iraq and involved in the anti-Coalition insurgency. GIS sources stressed that the involvement of Mugniyah in anti-Coalition operations in Iraq directly implicated Tehran in these activities; Mugniyah had operated only under the auspices of the Iranian Government ever since his shift to HizbAllah from Palestinian Pres. Yasir Arafat’s Force 17 in the early 1980s and had since operated alternately out of Tehran or Beirut, most recently the latter. Mugniyah was believed to be working with the assistance of Iraq-based Iranian Pasdaran.

The circumstances surrounding Mugniyah’s relocation, including whether his removal from Iraq would be only temporary, remained unclear; GIS sources could not confirm regional reporting in January-February 2004 that placed the HizbAllah operative in Iran, but acknowledged the possibility that he had been called in by Tehran for consultations about the next phase of the war in Iraq.

The Iranian capital had been the site of a multi-national convention from February 1-February 10, 2003, that included some 40 international terrorist organizations, including 17 branches of HizbAllah, the Iraqi al-Qaida-affiliate Ansar al-Islam (Companions of Islam), and the Gulbuddin Hekmatiyar-headed Afghan Islamist group Hizb Islami (the Islamic Party).  The “Ten Days of Dawn Revolutionary Conference”, an annual event marking the 25th anniversary of the return to Iran from exile of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, had been heralded in the official Iranian press as a conference to discuss new ways to confront the US. The conference’s attendees reportedly included delegations from a number of “Latin American guerilla outfits, clandestine Irish organizations, Basque and Corsican separatists, and a variety of leftist groups from Spartacists to Trotskyites and Guevarists”.1 GIS sources confirmed that “meaningful” discussions had taken place at the early February 2004 conference about future operations on the strategic level.

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.

The use of chemical weapons against Coalition Forces in Iraq would escalate the insurgency to an entirely new level and, as a result, it was expected that any such weapons now in the hands of Iraqi “resistance fighters” would not be used in the immediate future. As well, the use of WMD in Iraq against the Coalition, tactical problems aside, presented the strategic risk of legitimizing the Coalition’s cassus belli; the presence of WMD in Iraq. This legitimization would, Tehran and Damascus seemed to fear, ease the way to any future US action against their respective governments if and when the US Bush Administration chose to make a larger issue of the Iranian or Syrian WMD programs, in particular Iranian nuclear development and the presence of Iraqi WMD in Syria.

The Iranian leadership remained extremely concerned about developments in Iraq, particularly the effect that the early makings of democratic governance would have on its own populous. The emergence of a true Iraqi democracy was perceived as an existential threat to the perpetuation of the Iranian Islamic Republic and this belief had only been reinforced by the low turnout for the February 20, 2004, Iranian Majlis elections and even more so by the ongoing protests throughout the country. These protests included “clashes” with government forces in Firoozabad, Fars, Miando-ab, West Azerbijan, and Malekan, East Azerbijan, where, reportedly, large segments of the town’s population continued to protest and battle with Government forces through February 23, 2004.

The Student Movement Coordinating Committee for Democracy in Iran (SMCCDI) had also reported violence against protesters in the southern Iranian city of Izeh, including the murder of a local politician protesting exclusion from the electoral ballots. The SMCCDI had also reported ongoing anti-government demonstrations and violent responses by Government forces in Khorram-Abad, Firoozabad, and Dehdasht in the south, in Isfahan, and near the Afghan border in Mashad, Sabze-war, Nelshaboor, and Tchenaran. GIS Iranian sources reported that similar protests were sporadically ongoing throughout other Iranian cities, as well. Reports on the actual numbers of protesters remained unclear, but it appeared that, while sizable, the protests were smaller than those seen in Iran during June 2003.

[See  Defense & Foreign Affairs Daily, June 23, 2003: Protests Escalate in Iran; US Support Now Clearly Impacting Opposition.]

The presence of an Ansar al-Islam delegation at the Iran conference along with the January-February 2004 Iranian deployments in Iraq portended a growing Iranian involvement in the Iraqi insurgency; an involvement expected to be evidenced in the increasing professionalism and lethality of anti-Coalition operations in Iraq.

GIS sources noted the “spectacular” February 1, 2004, suicide bombing at Irbil against Kurdish targets and the “military-style expertise” displayed by as-yet unidentified fighters in the February 14, 2004, assault on an Iraqi Civil Defense Corps (ICDC) base in Fallujah. Media accounts of the February 14 attack in Fallujah had reported Iranian and Lebanese passports found amongst the dead and one report, from The Washington Post, said that at least one combatant had been wearing a checkered kaffiyah with “HizbAllah” written on it. Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) Chief Executive L. Paul Bremer subsequently told ABC television that “foreigners” had been involved in the attack, but on February 16, 2004, an Army spokesman declared that all combatants were believed to be Iraqi.

These alternating descriptions were, it seemed, partly a result of information slowly trickling in from the scene of the battle, but also appeared indicative of continued efforts by Washington to publicly minimize and ignore the rôle of Tehran and Damascus in the Iraqi insurgency for the time being. US Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld remained inclined to pursue a more publicly aggressive stance toward Iran and Syria [commenting on February 23, 2004 that more pressure on Tehran and Damascus “wouldn’t be a bad thing”]. However, other factions of the Bush Administration continued to believe that raising the issue of Iranian and Syrian anti-Coalition action in Iraq would prove counterproductive, disallowing the Iranian and Syrian leaderships, Syrian Pres. Bashar al-Asad, in particular, from shifting their current strategic choices. In other words, that if the issue was not addressed publicly, there was the belief that Tehran and/or Damascus could more easily “back off” without losing face as opposed to the US  making public their actions and placing Iran and Syria in a situation where they would be unable to retreat from their respective present positions.

Additionally, the public acknowledgement of a substantial Iranian military presence in Iraq would necessitate a willingness to confront Tehran — a willingness which the US Bush Administration had yet to seriously evidence in spite of consistent condemnations of the Iranian nuclear weapons program and support for Islamist terrorism — and, in essence, raise the risk of a US-Iranian military conflict which many in Washington fear would both hinder US progress in Iraq and deal a serious blow to Pres. Bush’s re-election hopes in November 2004. From a political perspective, this strategy would work only so long as the violence in Iraq remained below a certain threshold. If the situation in Iraq became sufficiently harmful to Pres. Bush’s re-election campaign, though, the US Bush Administration would reach a point of diminishing returns from its unwillingness to discuss Tehran and Damascus’s active involvement in sponsoring anti-Coalition operations in Iraq and it would then become politically beneficial if not necessary for the US to publicly address these issues.

Nevertheless, while evidence continued to grow of the Iranian and Syrian involvement in the Iraqi “resistance”, allied with bin Laden-linked Islamists and Iraqi Ba’athist forces, Tehran and Damascus appeared equally committed to an intensification of attacks in Israel.

The February 22, 2004, suicide attack on a Jerusalem bus which killed at least eight Israelis and injured more than 60, was claimed by the al-Aqsa Martyrs’ Brigades and, GIS sources detailed, had been ordered by Palestinian Authority (PA) Pres. Yasir Arafat at a cabinet meeting in his Ramallah compound on February 11, 2004. [GIS sources could not confirm whether Pres. Arafat had specified the target, but the strategic decision to renew suicide bombings against Israelis posthaste had been made by the PA Pres.]

While the immediate goal of such attacks from Pres. Arafat’s perspective appeared to be the prevention of an Israeli unilateral withdrawal from Gaza — and at the same time the construction of an alternative narrative to present an Israeli withdrawal as the result of unrelenting jihad if the Israelis did, in fact, pull out, regardless — GIS sources noted that Damascus and/or Tehran would likely have given their respective blessings to such a maneuver, as Syria and Iran control the networks and assets which would be required for the Palestinian “resistance” groups to execute operations on the scale that Pres. Arafat had ordered in early February 2004. 

Thus, it could be expected that as the US Presidential elections in November 2004 grew closer, Tehran and Damascus would attempt to escalate the situation in both Israel and Iraq, as well as in Afghanistan, in attempt to deal the US Bush Administration fatal blows on each pillar of its foreign policy goals and, especially, the cornerstones of the Administration’s efforts in the “war on terror”.

1., Amir Taheri, “Khomeinists Hammering New Strategy to Oust ‘Great Satan’