Commander of the Iranian Quds Force, Ismail Qaani, visited Iraq on Jan 27, 2022. (Press TV)

By Track Persia

January 27, 2022

The head of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps-Qods Force Esmail Qaani is reported to have been secretly visiting Iraq these days. It is Qaani’s second visit to Iraq this month. This visit comes as Iraq might for the first time in years get a government that excludes Iran-backed parties if the powerful populist cleric Muqtada al-Sadr who dominated a recent election keeps his word.

Iran-backed Shiite militias which make up some of the most powerful military forces in Iraq challenge the election results which have produced their unprecedented loss, initially declared after the elections held on the 10th of October.

The pro-Iran factions’ electoral bloc Fatah Alliance saw its share collapse from 48 seats to just 17. Consequently, they have launched a criticism campaign against their rival Sadr’s the Sadrist Movement and blaming its  Sunni and Kurdish allies which form an alliance with the Sadrists especially after the re-election of the Sunni parliamentary speaker Mohammed al-Halbousi. After they attempted to contest the election results failed and their effort to intimidate judges and Prime Minister Mustafa Al-Kadhimi did not work, they have started to threatened Sadrists’ allies from Sunnis and Kurds using force against them to change the election results, and this has so far failed too.

Qaani’s visit to Iraq come as Iraq’s Shiite factions have witnessed a split since 2005 when a new constitution was adopted, two years after the toppling of Saddam Hussein’s regime. Based on a quota system, Iraq’s Shiite majority was able to run the country virtually uncontested. However, the pro-Iran Shiite factions allowed Tehran to infiltrate the political stage and arm proxy militias that became a threat to the stability of the state. Ethno-sectarian tensions deepened and encouraged the pro-Iran Shiite factions to persecute Iraq’s Sunnis, exploiting the gains made by radical extremists such as Al-Qaeda and the Islamic State (IS) in the country.

By issuing his jihad fatwa against the extremist IS group in 2014, the most senior Shiite cleric in the Shiite city of Najaf Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani unintentionally offered an ideological umbrella for Iran, through Soleimani, to mobilise Iran’s proxies of Shi’ite militias to fight IS. The culmination of the misuse of Sistani’s fatwa is reflected in the justification of forming the Popular Mobilisation Force (PMF) which consists of mainly Iran-aligned Shiite militias. The PMF was later recognised by the Iraqi parliament which is dominated by Shiite factions as part of Iraq’s armed forces, despite these militias being accused of war crimes and violations of human rights. They have also weakened the Iraqi state leading to mass corruption, terrorism and sectarian violence.

It is worth noting that these elections were called for early in response to the nationwide popular protests which had erupted in early October 2019. According to independent human rights organisations, more than 700 protesters were killed by Iraqi government forces and Iran-allied Shiite militias and about 30 thousand more were injured, many of them sustained severe disabilities.

Sadr’s apparent willingness to go ahead with forming what he calls “a national majority government” will likely ignore his rivals from the Iran-backed camp, because he can form a solid majority government with his alliance with the Sunni Arabs and most of the Kurds.  This alliance is made up of the Sadrists bloc along with Iraq’s Sunni Arabs and most of Iraq’s Kurds, in addition to a few independents

Qaani’s predecessor Gen Qassem Soleimani who was killed on 3 January 2020 by a US drone strike near Baghdad Airport was successful in uniting Iran’s proxies in Iraq. Soleimani exploited the control of the IS extremist group over large swaths in north and west of Iraq and the fatwa issued by  Sistani in Iraq’s Shiite city of Najaf.

Khamenei’s quick appointment of Ismail Qaani as the new Quds Force commander seems to be designed to give the impression that nothing had changed, unshaken by the dramatic events that led to Soleimani’s death. However, Qaani does not seem to be enjoying a similar status of popularity among Iran’s proxies in Iraq. It seems that Qaani, like Soleimani, tends to focus on the propagandist strategy of praising the “martyrs” of the Iran-Iraq war.

Additionally, Tehran has been working on assigning Qaani to replace Soleimani to compensate for the loss of the latter. However, Qaani lacks Soleimani’s charisma and strong connections in Iraq. This has made his powers very limited. For this reason, Qaani’s previous visit to Iraq this month (15-17th January), had received more extensive coverage by pro-Iran media outlets in Iraq than any other visits he made to this country. The growing attention given to Qaani’s previous visit is viewed by some observers as an attempt by the Iranians to consolidate Qaani’s influence as the successor of Soleimani.

During Qaani’s previous, news outlets belonging to pro-Iran Shiite militias in Iraq posted images and a short video for Qaani. Sabreen News was the first outlet to report this visit. In these pictures and video, Qaani was shown visiting shrines of Shia imams in Najaf and Karbala, as well as the graves of Muhammad Muhammad Sadiq al-Sadr (Muqtada al-Sadr’s father) and that of Abu Madi al-Muhandis (de facto head of PMF who was killed along with Soleimani in the US drone strike in January 2020), both located in Najaf.

The pictures of Qaani appeared to be supplied to the outlets of pro-Iran militias by Qaani’s office to promote his visit and give it great importance. They showed  Qaani visiting Imam Ali’s shrine in Najaf to try to depict Qaani as a true Shiite believer.

Both Qaani’s recent visits to Iraq this month seem to be carrying messages from Iran’s Supreme Leader Grand Ayatollah Ali Khamenei that raise Qaani’s status, linking him to Khamenei. They are aimed to portray Qaani as Khamenei’s messenger so that he would gain more respect among the pro-Iran militias in Iraq. This is reflected in some posting by these outlets which implied that Qaani was the carrier of Khamenei’s message. For example, to consolidate Qaani’s position as the rightful successor to Soleimani, one of these outlets described Qaani as Soleimani’s confidant. Qaani’s recent visit to Iraq seems to be an attempt by Iran’s IRGC-Qods Force to prompt Iran-aligned militias in Iraq to respect Qaani’s guidance. They are meant to re-centralise command and control of these militias after their fragmentation since Soleimani’s assassination by the Americans in January 2020. These visits might also aim to offset the damaging impression that Qaani is not respected by Iran’s proxies in Iraq.

Historically, Qaani’s visits to Iraq were underwhelmed. For example, the powerful Asaib Ahl al-Haq (AAH) Shiite militia led by Qais al-Khazali greeted Qaani’s visit to Iraq in late 2020 with rocket attacks on the American interests in Iraq, breaching a truce held with the Americans ordered by the Iranians.

Qaani’s recent visit to Iraq is aimed to be the last chance for him to increase his influence on Iran’s proxies in Iraq and to prove that he is the right man to replace Soleimani and not a loser as seen by many Iraqis, including Iran’s proxies. However, Qaani’s attempts in this respect seem to have failed. This is reflected in Qaan’s failure to meet Sadr and Sistani in Najaf, in addition to the criticism he received from AAH leader Qais al-Khazali who criticised Iran’s willingness to support his militia and other militia in Iraq in their military operations against the American presence in Iraq.

About Track Persia

Track 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.