The new commander of IRGC’s Qods Force Esmail Qaani (L) and Lebanese Shiite cleric Muhammad Kawtharani, who has long spearheaded Hezbollah’s Iraq policy. (Mashregh)

By Track Persia

May 25, 2020

Attacks targeting US troops by Iran-proxies in Iraq have dramatically decreased in the past few weeks. This coincides with circulated reports that Tehran has tasked Lebanese proxies to take over the file of Iraq from Iran’s new commander of Qods Force, Esmail Ghaani.

Ghaani’s succeeded general Qassem Soleimani after the latter’s death in a US drone strike near Baghdad Airport on 3 January along with a group of Iran’s proxy in Iraq including Abu Mahdi al-Muahdis, the head of the lethal Iran-trained militia Kata’ib Hezbollah and Deputy Commander of Iraq’s Popular Mobilisation Force (PMF), or Hashd al-Sha’bi, an umbrella of state-recognised Shiite militias which are mostly linked to Tehran.

The new leader of Qods Force, the external wing of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) is understandably very cautious that he has only been to Iraq once in a secret visit since taking over his new job. Fearing of losing its top generals in similar strikes that killed Soleimani, Tehran entrusted Iraq’s political and military proxies to its Lebanese proxies in Hezbollah. In addition to Hezbollah leader Hassan Nasrallah.

Iraq’s PM Mustafa al-Kadhimi, before taking office, was reported to have visited Beirut to meet up with Iran’s staunch ally and leader of Hezbollah the Lebanese Shiite organisation Hassan Nasrullah. Iran seems to have decided to task Nasrullah to temporarily replace general Soleimani who drew Tehran’s regional projects which clearly faltered with his death.

Nasrullah’s new task came as Suleiman’s successor Ghaani, who no matter how much efforts he exerted, was not able to fill the vacuum his predecessor left. Soleimani was the director of Iraq’s power base and proxy networks which he had assembled over the 17 years of chaos that followed the US invasion in 2003.

Ghaani is struggling to assert his authority because of many challenges he is facing including he does not speak Arabic, the language spoken by the majority population in Iraq, nor does he know Iraq’s culture or history.  Additionally, he does not have any work experience in the region since his previous work was based in Afghanistan. Consequently, being cautious and keeping a low profile is understandable.

Tehran has also tasked Muhammad Kawtharani, a high ranking Hezbollah operative, to direct its militia proxies in Iraq. Kawtharani has been put on the terrorist list by the US since 2013 for training, funding and providing political and logistical support to Iran-linked Shiite militias in Iraq.  The State Department has recently issued $10 million reward for providing information about Kawtharani’s activities. That has subsequently made Iranian general and Iran’s proxies too afraid to appear in public gatherings and strict their movement.

One of the features of the tense relations between the US and Iran in the past two years was the rocket and mortar attacks by Iran’s militia network against US presence in the country. In addition to military escalation against the US presence there, Tehran used the political influence of its network in Baghdad to force the US troops out of the country.

Tehran started its escalation against the US after the Trump administration adopted maximum pressure policy towards Iran following the US’s withdrawal from Iran nuclear deal, widely known as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action (JCPOA), in May 2018. Tehran used its proxy attacks against the US presence to increase its leverage and to force Washington to abandon, or ease, its maximum pressure.

However, the military attacks by Iran’s network against the US presence in Iraq increased rapidly following the killing of Soleimani. These attacks are not only vengeance attacks, but they also reflect the impacts of Soleimani’s death on Tehran’s regional threat network.

The Shiite militias within Iraq’s PMF, also known as al-Hashd al-Sha’bi, since the death of the Deputy Chief Muhandis have experience major splits, one of which is the split along the pro-Tehran and groups of militias, commonly known as Hashd al-marja’iyya, which are affiliated with the senior Shiite cleric in Najaf, Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani.  Hashd al-marja’iyya has demanded separation from PMF and be directly linked to the Ministry of Defence. This split does not only reveal the depth of the division over working mechanism and ideology between pro- and anti-Tehran Shiite paramilitaries in Iraq, but it also reflects the growing impacts of the US maximum pressure on Iran threat network in Iraq. It seems the division came as a result of the bad reputation the Iran-backed militias have, in particular, their threats to public safety and human rights, in addition to their nomination of Abdul Aziz al-Muhammadawi (Abu Fadak), a close associate of Soleimani, to be Muhandis’ successor.

However, the attacks against the US interests in Iraq by Iran’s militia network in July and August decreased dramatically to zero. Strikingly, even the drone strikes that targeted these militias in different parts in Iraq and Syria were blamed on Israel, rather than on the US.

More recently, unknown Iran-linked militias have circulated statements that they carried out military attacks against the US troops in Iraq but the evidence they presented cannot be verified. For example, a group calls itself Tha’r al-Muhandis (the revenge of Muhandis) has announced that it took the responsibility for purportedly their first operation against the US troops in Iraq as revenge operation against the US for the killing of Muhandis and Soleimani, warning there would be more attacks to force its troops to leave Iraq. The group posted a footage shows an ostensibly the downing of a US helicopter by two militiamen carrying –man-portable air-defence systems and then one of them fires a missile towards a helicopter. However, the operation unlikely has happened, especially the footage does not show the helicopter while being hit at.

With the killing of Muhandis, a popular nom de guerre of Jamar al-Ibrahimi, Tehran lost one of its most powerful proxies as his career was to personify Tehran’s goal of exporting its Islamic Revolution abroad. Muhandis fought with Iran against Ba’athist Iraq during the 1980–1988 Iran-Iraq War; participated in Iran-backed terror operations in Kuwait in the 1980s; targeted U.S. and coalition forces in Iraq after 2003; and provided material support to designated terrorist groups, such as the IRGC-Qods Force, Lebanese Hezbollah, and Palestinian Islamic Jihad. He was the founder of the most lethal pro-Iran militias in Iraq, Kata’ib Hezbollah which carried out the December 2019 round of military provocations that culminated in the US killing of Soleimani. His death does not only weaken the power of Iran’s militia network in Iraq but also weakens IRGC-directed military campaigns to save the Assad regime in Syria.

Additionally, with the killing of Soleimani and Muhandis, Tehran has lost a major part of its influence in the region. Thanks to Trump administration’s decisive measures, Iran’s ambitions in the region has been remarkably curbed. The regime has now been reminded of how precarious its power is, especially it has been suffering severe economic decline with mounting public discontent for its hefty spending on its military adventurism while normal Iranians are being repressed by its security apparatus.

About Track Persia

Track PersiaTrack Persia is a Platform run by dedicated analysts who spend much of their time researching the Middle East, in due process we fall upon many indications of growing expansionary ambitions on the part of Iran in the MENA region and the wider Islamic world. These ambitions commonly increase tensions and undermine stability.