Documents made public by WikiLeaks provide a ground-level look at the shadow war between the U.S. and Iraqi militias backed by Iran's Revolutionary Guards.
On Dec. 22, 2006, U.S. military officials in Baghdad issued a secret warning: The Shiite militia commander who had orchestrated the kidnapping of officials from Iraq’s Ministry of Higher Education was now hatching plans to take U.S. soldiers hostage.
What made the warning especially worrying were intelligence reports saying that the Iraqi militant, Azhar al-Dulaimi, had been trained by the Middle East’s masters of the dark arts of paramilitary operations: the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps in Iran and Hezbollah, its Lebanese ally.
“Dulaymi reportedly obtained his training from Hizballah operatives near Qum, Iran, who were under the supervision of Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps Quds Force (IRGC-QF) officers in July 2006,” the report noted, using alternative spellings. Five months later, al-Dulaimi was killed in a U.S. raid in the Shiite enclave of Sadr City in Baghdad — but not before four U.S. soldiers had been abducted from an Iraqi headquarters in Karbala and killed in an operation that U.S. officials say literally bore al-Dulaimi’s fingerprints.
Documents made public by WikiLeaks, which has disclosed classified information about the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, provide a ground-level look — at least as seen by U.S. units in the field and the United States’ military intelligence — at the shadow war between the U.S. and Iraqi militias backed by Iran’s Revolutionary Guards.
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During the administration of President George W. Bush, critics charged that the White House had exaggerated Iran’s role to deflect criticism of its handling of the war and build support for a tough policy toward Iran, including the possibility of military action.
But the field reports disclosed by WikiLeaks, which were never intended to be made public, underscore the seriousness with which Iran’s role has been seen by the U.S. military.
Citing the testimony of detainees, a captured militant’s diary and uncovered arms caches, among other intelligence, the reports recount Iran’s role in providing Iraqi militia fighters with rockets, magnetic bombs that can be attached to cars, “explosively formed penetrators,” or EFPs, which are the most lethal type of roadside bomb in Iraq, and other weapons. Those include .50-caliber rifles and the Misagh-1, an Iranian replica of a Chinese surface-to-air missile, which, the reports say, was fired at American helicopters and downed one in Baghdad in July 2007.
Iraqi militants went to Iran to be trained as snipers and in the use of explosives, the reports assert, and the Quds Force collaborated with Iraqi extremists to encourage the assassination of Iraqi officials.
The reports make it clear that the lethal contest between Iranian-backed militias and U.S. forces continued after President Obama tried to open a dialogue with Iran and reaffirmed the agreement between the United States and Iraq to withdraw U.S. troops from Iraq by the end of 2011.
Established by Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini after the 1979 Iranian revolution, the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps has expanded its influence under President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, a former member of the corps, and it plays an important role in Iran’s economy, politics and security. The corps’ Quds Force, under Brig. Gen. Qassem Soleimani, has responsibility for foreign operations and has often worked though surrogates, like Hezbollah.
While some of the raw information in the reports cannot be verified, it is broadly consistent with other classified U.S. intelligence and public accounts by military officials. As seen by current and former U.S. officials, the Quds Force has two main objectives: to weaken and shape Iraq’s nascent government and to diminish the United States’ role in Iraq.
For people like Soleimani, “who went through all eight years of the Iran-Iraq war, this is certainly about poking a stick at us, but it is also about achieving strategic advantage in Iraq,” Ryan C. Crocker, the U.S. ambassador in Iraq from 2007 to 2009, said.
“I think the Iranians understand that they are not going to dominate Iraq,” Crocker added, ” but I think they are going to do their level best to weaken it — to have a weak central government that is constantly off balance, that is going to have to be beseeching Iran to stop doing bad things without having the capability to compel them to stop doing bad things. And that is an Iraq that will never again threaten Iran.”
According to the reports, Iran’s role has been political as well as military. A Nov. 27, 2005, report, issued before Iraq’s December 2005 parliamentary elections, cautioned that Iranian-backed militia members in the Iraqi government were gaining power and giving Iran influence over Iraqi politics.
“Iran is gaining control of Iraq at many levels of the Iraqi government,” the report warned.
The reports also recount an array of border incidents, including a Sept. 7, 2006, episode in which an Iranian soldier who aimed a rocket-propelled grenade launcher at a U.S. platoon trying to leave the border area was shot and killed by a U.S. soldier.
The members of the platoon, who had gone to the border area with Iraqi troops to look for “infiltration routes” used to smuggle weapons into Iraq, were concerned that Iranian border forces were trying to detain them. After this incident, the platoon returned to its base in Iraq under fire from the Iranians even when the U.S. soldiers were “well inside Iraqi territory,” a report noted.
The reports suggest that Iranian-sponsored assassinations of Iraqi officials became a serious worry.
A case in point is a March 27, 2007, report. Iranian intelligence agents within the Badr Corps and Jaish al-Mahdi, two Shiite militias, “have recently been influencing attacks on ministry officials in Iraq,” the report said.
The March report said Industry Ministry officials were high on the target list.
“The desired effect of these attacks is not to simply kill the Ministry of Industry Officials,” it noted, but also “to show the world, and especially the Arab world, that the Baghdad Security Plan has failed to bring stability,” referring to the troop increase that Gen. David H. Petraeus was overseeing in Iraq.
News reports in early 2007 indicated that a ministry consultant and his daughter were shot and killed on the way to his office. The March report does not mention the attack, but it asserts that one gunman was carrying out an assassination campaign, which included killing three bodyguards and plotting to attack ministry officials while wearing a stolen Iraqi Army uniform.
The provision of Iranian rockets, mortars and bombs to Shiite militants has also been a major concern. A Nov. 22, 2005, report recounted an effort by the Iraqi border police to stop the smuggling of arms from Iran, which “recovered a quantity of bomb-making equipment, including explosively formed projectiles,” which are capable of blasting a projectile through a Humvee’s armor.
A Dec. 27, 2008, report noted one case when soldiers from the 82nd Airborne Division captured several suspected members of the Jaish al-Mahdi militia and seized a weapons cache, which also included several diaries. One explained “why detainee joined JAM and how they traffic materials from Iran.”
The attacks continued during Obama’s first year in office.
A June 25, 2009, report about an EFP attack that wounded 10 Americans noted that the militants used tactics “being employed by trained violent extremist members that have returned from Iran.”
The attack’s purpose, the report speculated, was to increase American casualties so militants could claim that they had “fought the occupiers and forced them to withdraw.”
An intelligence analysis of a Dec. 31, 2009, attack on the Green Zone using 107-millimeter rockets concluded that it was carried out by the Baghdad branch of Kataib Hezbollah, a Shiite group that U.S. intelligence has long believed is supported by Iran.
According to the December report, a technical expert from Kataib Hezbollah met before the attack with a “weapons facilitator” who “reportedly traveled to Iran, possibility to facilitate the attacks on 31 Dec.”
That same month, U.S. Special Operations forces and a specially trained Iraqi police unit captured an Iraqi militant near Basra who had been trained in Iran. A Dec. 19, 2009, report stated that the detainee was involved in smuggling “sticky bombs” — explosives that are attached magnetically to the underside of vehicles — into Iraq and was “suspected of collecting information on coalition forces and passing them to Iranian intelligence agents.”
One of the most striking episodes detailed in the documents describes a plot to kidnap U.S. soldiers from their Humvees. According to the Dec. 22, 2006, report, a militia commander, Hasan Salim, devised a plan to capture U.S. soldiers in Baghdad and hold them hostage in Sadr City to deter U.S. raids there.
To carry out the plan, Salim turned to Dulaimi, a Sunni who converted to the Shiite branch of the faith.
Those kidnappings were never carried out. But the next month, militants conducted a raid to kidnap U.S. soldiers working at the Iraqi security headquarters in Karbala, known as the Provincial Joint Coordination Center.
The documents do not include an intelligence assessment as to who carried out the Karbala operation. But military officials said after the attack that Dulaimi was the tactical commander and that his fingerprints were found on the getaway car.