Iranian Involvement in the Iraqi Civil War

Wednesday, January 24, 2007
10:00 AM – 12:00 PM


Mounir Elkhamri
Middle East Military Analyst, Foreign Military Studies Office


On January 24, The Jamestown Foundation hosted Mounir Elkhamri, a Middle East Military Analyst from the Foreign Military Studies Office in Fort Leavenworth, Kansas. Having recently returned from an 18-month tour in Iraq where he worked with a logistics brigade, a maneuver battalion and a Special Forces ODA team and having native fluency in Arabic, Elkhamri brought a unique and first-hand perspective to Iran’s growing involvement in Iraq. His lecture summarized Iran’s contribution to Iraq’s civil unrest. Tracing Tehran’s influence back before the U.S.-led invasion, Elkhamri’s talk examined some key points about the critical players in Iraq’s growing sectarian conflict and elucidated Iran’s greater regional ambitions:

– Iran initiated military, political and social relations with various tribes, groups and parties in Iraq prior to the U.S.-led invasion in 2003. Among these groups were the Badr Corps, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan and the Da’wa Party.

– After the U.S.-led invasion, Iran moved to strengthen its ability to influence events in Iraq. It infiltrated the Ministries of Defense and Interior and the Department of Immigration, moved Iraqis living in Iran back to Iraq, and increased financial ties to Iraq through various front companies.

– Tehran’s ultimate objective is to ensure that a post-Saddam Iraq is friendly to the Islamic Republic by courting the Shia populations in the oil-rich south and Baghdad and making inroads with the Kurdish leadership.

– If Tehran is able to secure control over the Shia in southern Iraq, it will have influence over 20% of the world’s oil reserves.

– The re-introduction of the Sunnis into the Iraqi political process and the sidelining of the Shia militias are important steps that the U.S. can take to counter Iran’s regional ambitions and are more realistic alternatives to military confrontation with Iran.


Mounir Elkhamri began with a brief historical backdrop of Iran’s role in not only Iraq but also the greater region starting after the Islamic Revolution in 1979. Under Grand Ayatollah Khomeini, the idea of a Greater Iran was fostered. This area would encompass a "Shia Crescent" stretching from Bahrain to the Arabian Peninsula and from Lebanon to Iraq. Since then, Iran has done its best to advance friendly political parties and create Shia-based groups in other Gulf countries that were receptive to its goal. Elkhamri gave the examples of Hezbollah in Lebanon, Hamas in Palestine and, more importantly, the Da’wa party and the Supreme Council of the Islamic Revolution in Iraq. The meetings between Kurdish political party leaders, such as Jalal Talabani of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan and Massoud Barzani of the Kurdistan Democratic Party, were evidenced in recently de-classified Iraqi intelligence documents found after the invasion.

Elkhamri emphasized how events after the U.S.-led invasion provided key opportunities for Iran to increase its influence in Iraq. The de-Baathification process sidelined Sunnis from the political process and as a result allowed Iranian-backed politicians and groups to gain sensitive positions in the new government, specifically in the Ministries of Defense and the Interior and the Department of Immigration. Elkhamri attached specific notice to the latter governmental body because it was largely responsible for allowing Iraqis living in Iran to become citizens and Iranians living in Iraq to become naturalized. In addition, the departments permitted pro-Iranian propagandists to flood the northern Kurdish and southern Shia populated areas, manipulating the outcome of the elections. He claimed that this led directly to the passing of the federalism referendum in the Kurdish north as some individuals cast multiple votes in different cities. Elkhamri presented two maps of Kurdistan–one prior to the elections and one current–to display the enlarged size of the Kurdish controlled areas. Such an increase in area of Kurd-controlled land could only come from concentrated military, political and social support, much of which came to pass through the actions of the Ministries of Defense and Interior and Department of Immigration. According to Elkhamri, a strong Kurdish north, let alone an independent Kurdistan, under the federalism referendum is in the interests of Tehran as it assures not only a friendly border state but also a fragmented and weak Iraq.

Presently a very hot topic in the current civil war, the rise of Shia militias is in part a response to the Sunni insurgency, but more importantly a vehicle of Iranian influence. Elkhamri pointed to a tactical refocusing of the armed Shia militias–they are now hiring Iraqi and Iranian females to gather intelligence. This was evidenced by the latest arrests of females who were found scouting U.S. and Iraqi military posts while posing as homeless and carrying advanced tracking technology, GPS instruments and other intelligence gathering tools in and around Baghdad. Additionally, members of Moqdata al-Sadr’s Mehdi Army, an Iranian-supported militia, were recently arrested in Saudi Arabia during the period of the Hajj carrying books that espoused a Sunni-Shia confrontation, an idea that Iran would support as it destabilizes the region and provides them a chance to gain control in the pursuant power vacuum. Iran’s meddling has spilled over the Iraqi-Saudi border and into the Arabian Peninsula with the recent phenomenon of the Mecca Brigade, a Shia militia stationed on the border ready to enter and defend the Shia minority in the Kingdom.

Elkhamri concluded his lecture with several suggestions for the continued U.S. effort in Iraq. In view of the fact that a civil resolution in Iran is unlikely and military engagement with Iran is undesirable, it is essential for the United States to be careful with which parties it aligns itself in Iraq and in what manner it executes its missions. For instance, Elkhamri highlighted the recent meetings between leaders of the Da’wa party, Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, Kurdish parties and even several Sunni groups that were aimed at creating a strategy to overcome the sectarian violence by sidelining al-Sadr’s bloc. The danger of this development, however, is that these groups may be using U.S. forces on the ground to achieve their own political agenda, which in this case involves weakening al-Sadr. This development may not necessarily be in the best interests of the United States. Therefore, the careful, immediate elimination of the armed Shia militias in Iraq will reduce Tehran’s power and its tools of manipulation.


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