Iran Hegemony During the Iraq War (Daniel 8:4)

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Michael R. Gordon and Ben Kesling

 

WASHINGTON—Recently declassified U.S. interrogation reports shed new light on one of Iraq’s most prominent Shiite political figures and Iran’s role in training and arming Iraqi militias that attacked U.S. troops during the Iraq war.

The interrogations of Qais al-Khazali resonate today because he leads a major Shiite militia group whose power has grown after recent elections in Iraq, where the U.S. and Iran are jostling for influence.

Mr. Khazali’s interrogations were conducted a decade ago after he was captured by the American-led coalition and accused of organizing a 2007 attack that led to the deaths of five U.S. soldiers.

The reports were declassified and approved for public release by the U.S. Central Command months ago as part of an effort to study the history of the Iraq war. Though they haven’t been officially distributed by the U.S. government, copies have been reviewed by The Wall Street Journal.

The reports have been circulating in Washington as lawmakers and Trump administration officials have been debating whether to designate Mr. Khazali and his militia group as terrorist entities. Such a designation could have economic consequences for Mr. Khazali and his group, but could put the U.S. on a collision course with hard-line Shiite politicians in Iraq.

The reports are also likely to roil the political scene in Baghdad, where Mr. Khazali is jockeying for power with other Shiite political leaders, including Moqtada al-Sadr, the fiery Shiite cleric whose movement reaped impressive gains in the recent Iraqi elections.

Mr. Khazali leads Asaib Ahl al-Haq, the Shia militia group that won 15 of Iraq’s 329 seats in parliamentary elections in May.

The Trump administration has vowed to roll back Tehran’s aggressive posture in the region and has withdrawn from the six nation agreement with Iran to constrain its nuclear program. Throughout the Iraq war, Iran sought to influence the Shiite-dominated government in Iraq, often to the real and perceived detriment of the Sunni minority.

In recent months, Mr. Khazali has asserted publicly that he isn’t beholden to Iran. But the interrogation reports show that Mr. Khazali discussed his interaction with Iran and the arms and training received from Tehran by Iraqi Shiite militias during a period when they were attacking U.S. and allied troops to pressure them to leave the country.

U.S. forces left in 2011 after President Obama and then-Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki failed to reach an accord to allow American troops to stay.

According to a June 18, 2007, interrogation report, Mr. Khazali said the training was carried out by Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps at three bases near Tehran, including the Imam Khomeini base, which Mr. Khazali said he had visited.

“There are Iranians and Lebanese Hezbollah conducting the training at these bases,” the report said, based on interrogation. “The Iranians are experts in full scale warfare while the Lebanese are experts in urban or guerrilla warfare.”

Iranian officers didn’t dictate which specific targets should be attacked in Iraq but suggested that the Iraqi Shiite militias focus attacks on British in the Basra area and American troops elsewhere “to force a withdrawal,” the report said.

A representative for Mr. Khazali asserted that the U.S. was meddling in Iraq’s political affairs. “It seems that the U.S. is leading a campaign against Asaib Ahl al-Haq and its leader Sheikh Qais al-Khazali because he strongly rejected foreign interference in Iraqi affairs,” said Qassim al-Darraji, a member of the party’s political bureau.

Alireza Miryousefi, spokesman for Iran’s mission to the United Nations, denied that Iran sought to manipulate Iraqi politics or had trained Shiite militias to fight U.S. troops in Iraq.

“That question has been answered numerous times over the past 15 years and is also preposterous on the face of it,” he said. “Iran has helped Iraqis purely for the purposes of self-defense against terrorist groups like Daesh,” he added, using an Arabic acronym for the Islamic State.

Mr. Khazali also discussed how the Iranians supplied the militias with what the Pentagon calls explosively formed penetrators, or EFPs, a particularly lethal type of explosive device that killed or wounded hundreds of American troops. “Detainee said that anyone can receive EFP training and Iran does not care who gets it,” a report said. “This is because of the availability and low cost of EFPs.”

U.S. officials say Mr. Khazali’s most notorious role, and the one that led to his capture, was his involvement in a plot to kidnap U.S. troops in the Iraqi city of Karbala south of Baghdad, which ended with the death of five American soldiers. The goal of the Karbala attack, which he told interrogators was planned by Iran, had been to take U.S. hostages that would be traded for followers of Mr. Sadr held by the American-led coalition, Mr. Khazali said.

Mr. Khazali was turned over to Iraqi authorities in late 2009 after he vowed his militia members would lay down their arms and was released shortly after that. There was no indication in the reports that Mr. Khazali was subjected to harsh interrogation while in the custody of the U.S. military, though he complained that he was under stress and suffered seizures, the reports note.

Mr. Khazali said while undergoing interrogation that he had been a chubby youth, according to interrogation transcripts, and a studious young man who earned a bachelor’s degree in geology before going on to study religion. His willingness to meld science and theology won him the approval of Mohammad al-Sadr, one of the most respected Shiite thinkers and father of Moqtada al-Sadr, he said.

The elder Mr. Sadr was killed in 1999 in an attack his followers blamed on Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein, and his son took on much of his father’s mantle.

Under repeated questioning, Mr. Khazali discussed his extensive travel to Iran with Moqtada al-Sadr and later on his own as an emissary in search of money, political support and arms.

In early visits the two were received by high-ranking Iranians. Later, during a 2005 visit to Iran Mr. Khazali undertook alone, he was told by Iranian officials that Mr. Sadr needed to take part in Iraqi elections to ensure “the Shia people gained complete control of the country and the government.” He also met with Qassem Soleimani, the head of Iran’s paramilitary Quds Force.

Mr. Sadr couldn’t immediately reached for comment.

Mr. Khazali also told of his falling out with Mr. Sadr, who he complained in a Jan. 6, 2008, interrogation report “has no principles and only works for personal gain.”

Many of his interrogations are filled with accounts of Mr. Sadr’s dealings with the Iranians and his interest in controlling the Iranian money flowing to political groups in Iraq.

Mr. Khazali also told interrogators that a number of other Iraqi political figures were sympathetic to or influenced by Iran, including Jalal Talabani, who served as the Iraqi president and died in 2017.

Iranian-backed militias have refrained from attacking U.S. troops since they returned to Iraq in 2014 to help Iraqi forces fight the militants from Islamic State, a common foe of Washington and Tehran.

Still, Mr. Khazali’s close ties with Iran are important since Asaib Ahl al-Haq is a potentially powerful faction as Iraq struggles to form a government after a fractious election.

“They had one seat before, and they played a big role because they had guns; now they have 15 times as many seats,” said Kirk Sowell, publisher of the Inside Iraqi Politics newsletter.

While those 15 seats aren’t necessarily useful on their own, Mr. Khazali could fold into a coalition or break away and become a persistent voice of opposition to a government that is likely to be dysfunctional, Mr. Sowell said.

Mr. Sadr has seen great success by being an opposition gadfly over the past few years, and Mr. Khazali could gain power and popularity with a similar approach.

—Ghassan Adnan in Baghdad contributed to this article.

Write to Michael R. Gordon at michael.gordon@wsj.com and Ben Kesling at benjamin.kesling@wsj.com

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