Iran Dominates in Iraq After U.S. ‘Handed the Country Over’
BAGHDAD — Walk into almost any market in Iraq and the shelves are filled with goods from Iran — milk, yogurt, chicken. Turn on the television and channel after channel broadcasts programs sympathetic to Iran.
A new building goes up? It is likely that the cement and bricks came from Iran. And when bored young Iraqi men take pills to get high, the illicit drugs are likely to have been smuggled across the porous Iranian border.
And that’s not even the half of it.
Across the country, Iranian-sponsored militias are hard at work establishing a corridor to move men and guns to proxy forces in Syria and Lebanon. And in the halls of power in Baghdad, even the most senior Iraqi cabinet officials have been blessed, or bounced out, by Iran’s leadership.
When the United States invaded Iraq 14 years ago to topple Saddam Hussein, it saw Iraq as a potential cornerstone of a democratic and Western-facing Middle East, and vast amounts of blood and treasure — about 4,500 American lives lost, more than $1 trillion spent — were poured into the cause.
From Day 1, Iran saw something else: a chance to make a client state of Iraq, a former enemy against which it fought a war in the 1980s so brutal, with chemical weapons and trench warfare, that historians look to World War I for analogies. If it succeeded, Iraq would never again pose a threat, and it could serve as a jumping-off point to spread Iranian influence around the region.
In that contest, Iran won, and the United States lost.
Over the past three years, Americans have focused on the battle against the Islamic State in Iraq, returning more than 5,000 troops to the country and helping to force the militants out of Iraq’s second-largest city, Mosul.
But Iran never lost sight of its mission: to dominate its neighbor so thoroughly that Iraq could never again endanger it militarily, and to use the country to effectively control a corridor from Tehran to the Mediterranean.
“Iranian influence is dominant,” said Hoshyar Zebari, who was ousted last year as finance minister because, he said, Iran distrusted his links to the United States. “It is paramount.”
The country’s dominance over Iraq has heightened sectarian tensions around the region, with Sunni states, and American allies, like Saudi Arabia mobilizing to oppose Iranian expansionism. But Iraq is only part of Iran’s expansion project; it has also used soft and hard power to extend its influence in Lebanon, Syria, Yemen and Afghanistan, and throughout the region.
Iran is a Shiite state, and Iraq, a Shiite majority country, was ruled by an elite Sunni minority before the American invasion. The roots of the schism between Sunnis and Shiites, going back almost 1,400 years, lie in differences over the rightful leaders of Islam after the death of the Prophet Muhammad. But these days, it is about geopolitics as much as religion, with the divide expressed by different states that are adversaries, led by Saudi Arabia on one side and Iran on the other.
Iran’s influence in Iraq is not just ascendant, but diverse, projecting into military, political, economic and cultural affairs.
At some border posts in the south, Iraqi sovereignty is an afterthought. Busloads of young militia recruits cross into Iran without so much as a document check. They receive military training and are then flown to Syria, where they fight under the command of Iranian officers in defense of the Syrian president, Bashar al-Assad.
Passing in the other direction, truck drivers pump Iranian products — food, household goods, illicit drugs — into what has become a vital and captive market.
Iran tips the scales to its favor in every area of commerce. In the city of Najaf, it even picks up the trash, after the provincial council there awarded a municipal contract to a private Iranian company. One member of the council, Zuhair al-Jibouri, resorted to a now-common Iraqi aphorism: “We import apples from Iran so we can give them away to Iranian pilgrims.”
Politically, Iran has a large number of allies in Iraq’s Parliament who can help secure its goals. And its influence over the choice of interior minister, through a militia and political group the Iranians built up in the 1980s to oppose Mr. Hussein, has given it substantial control over that ministry and the federal police.
Perhaps most crucial, Parliament passed a law last year that effectively made the constellation of Shiite militias a permanent fixture of Iraq’s security forces. This ensures Iraqi funding for the groups while effectively maintaining Iran’s control over some of the most powerful units.
Now, with new parliamentary elections on the horizon, Shiite militias have begun organizing themselves politically for a contest that could secure even more dominance for Iran over Iraq’s political system.
To gain advantage on the airwaves, new television channels set up with Iranian money and linked to Shiite militias broadcast news coverage portraying Iran as Iraq’s protector and the United States as a devious interloper.
Partly in an effort to contain Iran, the United States has indicated that it will keep troops behind in Iraq after the battle against the Islamic State. American diplomats have worked to emphasize the government security forces’ role in the fighting, and to shore up a prime minister, Haider al-Abadi, who has seemed more open to the United States than to Iran.
But after the United States’ abrupt withdrawal of troops in 2011, American constancy is still in question here — a broad failure of American foreign policy, with responsibility shared across three administrations.
Iran has been playing a deeper game, parlaying extensive religious ties with Iraq’s Shiite majority and a much wider network of local allies, as it makes the case that it is Iraq’s only reliable defender.
A Road to the Sea
Iran’s great project in eastern Iraq may not look like much: a 15-mile stretch of dusty road, mostly gravel, through desert and scrub near the border in Diyala Province.
But it is an important new leg of Iran’s path through Iraq to Syria, and what it carries — Shiite militiamen, Iranian delegations, trade goods and military supplies — is its most valuable feature.
It is a piece of what analysts and Iranian officials say is Iran’s most pressing ambition: to exploit the chaos of the region to project influence across Iraq and beyond. Eventually, analysts say, Iran could use the corridor, established on the ground through militias under its control, to ship weapons and supplies to proxies in Syria, where Iran is an important backer of Mr. Assad, and to Lebanon and its ally Hezbollah.
At the border to the east is a new crossing built and secured by Iran. Like the relationship between the two countries, it is lopsided.
The checkpoint’s daily traffic includes up to 200 Iranian trucks, carrying fruit and yogurt, concrete and bricks, into Iraq. In the offices of Iraqi border guards, the candies and soda offered to guests come from Iran.
No loaded trucks go the other way.
“Iraq doesn’t have anything to offer Iran,” Vahid Gachi, the Iranian official in charge of the crossing, said in an interview in his office, as lines of tractor-trailers poured into Iraq. “Except for oil, Iraq relies on Iran for everything.”
The border post is also a critical transit point for Iran’s military leaders to send weapons and other supplies to proxies fighting the Islamic State in Iraq.
After the Islamic State, also known as ISIS, ISIL or Daesh, swept across Diyala and neighboring areas in 2014, Iran made clearing the province, a diverse area of Sunnis and Shiites, a priority.
It marshaled a huge force of Shiite militias, many trained in Iran and advised on the ground by Iranian officials. After a quick victory, Iranians and their militia allies set about securing their next interests here: marginalizing the province’s Sunni minority and securing a path to Syria. Iran has fought aggressively to keep its ally Mr. Assad in power in order to retain land access to its most important spinoff in the region, Hezbollah, the military and political force that dominates Lebanon and threatens Israel.
A word from Maj. Gen. Qassim Suleimani, Iran’s powerful spymaster, sent an army of local Iraqi contractors scrambling, lining up trucks and bulldozers to help build the road, free of charge. Militiamen loyal to Iran were ordered to secure the site.
Uday al-Khadran, the Shiite mayor of Khalis District in Diyala, is a member of the Badr Organization, an Iraqi political party and militia established by Tehran in the 1980s to fight against Mr. Hussein during the Iran-Iraq war.
On an afternoon earlier this year, he spread a map across his desk and proudly discussed how he helped build the road, which he said was ordered by General Suleimani, the commander of the Quds Force, the branch of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps responsible for foreign operations. General Suleimani secretly directed Iran’s policy in Iraq after the American invasion in 2003, and was responsible for the deaths of hundreds of American soldiers in attacks carried out by militias under his control.
“I love Qassim Suleimani more than my children,” he said.
Mr. Khadran said the general’s new road would eventually be a shortcut for religious pilgrims from Iran to reach Samarra, Iraq, the location of an important shrine.
But he also acknowledged the route’s greater strategic significance as part of a corridor secured by Iranian proxies that extends across central and northern Iraq. The connecting series of roads skirts the western city of Mosul and stretches on to Tal Afar, an Islamic State-controlled city where Iranian-backed militias and Iranian advisers have set up a base at an airstrip on the outskirts.
“Diyala is the passage to Syria and Lebanon, and this is very important to Iran,” said Ali al-Daini, the Sunni chairman of the provincial council there.
Closer to Syria, Iranian-allied militias moved west of Mosul as the battle against the Islamic State unfolded there in recent months. The militias captured the town of Baaj, and then proceeded to the Syrian border, putting Iran on the cusp of completing its corridor.
Back east, in Diyala, Mr. Daini said he had been powerless to halt what he described as Iran’s dominance in the province.
When Mr. Daini goes to work, he said, he has to walk by posters of Iran’s revolutionary leader, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, outside the council building.
Iran’s militias in the province have been accused of widespread sectarian cleansing, pushing Sunnis from their homes to establish Shiite dominance and create a buffer zone on its border. The Islamic State was beaten in Diyala more than two years ago, but thousands of Sunni families still fill squalid camps, unable to return home.
Now, Diyala has become a showcase for how Iran views Shiite ascendancy as critical to its geopolitical goals.
“Iran is smarter than America,” said Nijat al-Taie, a Sunni member of the provincial council and an outspoken critic of Iran, which she calls the instigator of several assassination attempts against her. “They achieved their goals on the ground. America didn’t protect Iraq. They just toppled the regime and handed the country over to Iran.”
The Business of Influence
The lives of General Suleimani and other senior leaders in Tehran were shaped by the prolonged war with Iraq in the 1980s. The conflict left hundreds of thousands dead on both sides, and General Suleimani spent much of the war at the front, swiftly rising in rank as so many officers were killed.
“The Iran-Iraq war was the formative experience for all of Iran’s leaders,” said Ali Vaez, an Iran analyst at the International Crisis Group, a conflict resolution organization. “From Suleimani all the way down. It was their ‘never again’ moment.”
A border dispute over the Shatt al Arab waterway that was a factor in the hostilities has still not been resolved, and the legacy of the war’s brutality has influenced the Iranian government ever since, from its pursuit of nuclear weapons to its policy in Iraq.
“This is a permanent scar in their mind,” said Mowaffak al-Rubaie, a lawmaker and former national security adviser. “They are obsessed with Baathism, Saddam and the Iran-Iraq war.”
More than anything else, analysts say, it is the scarring legacy of that war that has driven Iranian ambitions to dominate Iraq.
Particularly in southern Iraq, where the population is mostly Shiite, signs of Iranian influence are everywhere.
Iranian-backed militias are the defenders of the Shiite shrines in the cities of Najaf and Karbala that drive trade and tourism. In local councils, Iranian-backed political parties have solid majorities, and campaign materials stress relationships with Shiite saints and Iranian clerics.
If the Iraqi government were stronger, said Mustaq al-Abady, a businessman from just outside Najaf, “then maybe we could open our factories instead of going to Iran.” He said his warehouse was crowded with Iranian imports because his government had done nothing to promote a private sector, police its borders or enforce customs duties.
Raad Fadhil al-Alwani, a merchant in Hilla, another southern city, imports cleaning supplies and floor tiles from Iran. He slaps “Made in Iraq” labels in Arabic on bottles of detergent, but the reality is that he owns a factory in Iran because labor is cheaper there.
“I feel like I am destroying the economy of Iraq,” he said. But he insists that Iraqi politicians, by deferring to Iranian pressure and refusing to support local industry, have made it hard to do anything else.
Najaf attracts millions of Iranian pilgrims each year visiting the golden-domed shrine of Imam Ali, the first Shiite imam. Iranian construction workers — many of whom are viewed as Iranian spies by Iraqi officials — have also flocked to the city to renovate the shrine and build hotels.
In Babil Province, according to local officials, militia leaders have taken over a government project to set up security cameras along strategic roads. The project had been granted to a Chinese company before the militias intervened, and now the army and the local police have been sidelined from it, said Muqdad Omran, an Iraqi Army captain in the area.
Iran’s pre-eminence in the Iraqi south has not come without resentment. Iraqi Shiites share a faith with Iran, but they also hold close their other identities as Iraqis and Arabs.
“Iraq belongs to the Arab League, not to Iran,” said Sheikh Fadhil al-Bidayri, a cleric at the religious seminary in Najaf. “Shiites are a majority in Iraq, but a minority in the world. As long as the Iranian government is controlling the Iraqi government, we don’t have a chance.”
In this region where the Islamic State’s military threat has never encroached, Iran’s security concerns are mostly being addressed by economic manipulation, Iraqi officials say. Trade in the south is often financed by Iran with credit, and incentives are offered to Iraqi traders to keep their cash in Iranian banks.
Baghdad’s banks play a role, too, as the financial anchors for Iraqi front companies used by Iran to gain access to dollars that can then finance the country’s broader geopolitical aims, said Entifadh Qanbar, a former aide to the Iraqi politician Ahmad Chalabi, who died in 2015.
“It’s very important for the Iranians to maintain corruption in Iraq,” he said.
The Militias’ Long Arm
For decades, Iran smuggled guns and bomb-making supplies through the vast swamps of southern Iraq. And young men were brought back and forth across the border, from one safe house to another — recruits going to Iran for training, and then back to Iraq to fight. At first the enemy was Mr. Hussein; later, it was the Americans.
Today, agents of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards openly recruit fighters in the Shiite-majority cities of southern Iraq. Buses filled with recruits easily pass border posts that officials say are essentially controlled by Iran — through its proxies on the Iraqi side, and its own border guards on the other.
While Iran has built up militias to fight against the Islamic State in Iraq, it has also mobilized an army of disaffected young Shiite Iraqi men to fight on its behalf in Syria.
Mohammad Kadhim, 31, is one of those foot soldiers for Iran, having served three tours in Syria. The recruiting pitch, he said, is mostly based in faith, to defend Shiite shrines in Syria. But Mr. Kadhim said he and his friends signed up more out of a need for jobs.
“I was just looking for money,” he said. “The majority of the youth I met fighting in Syria do it for the money.”
He signed up with a Revolutionary Guards recruiter in Najaf, and then was bused through southern Iraq and into Iran, where he underwent military training near Tehran.
There, he said, Iranian officers delivered speeches invoking the martyrdom of Imam Hussein, the revered seventh-century Shiite figure whose death at the hands of a powerful Sunni army became the event around which Shiite spirituality would revolve. The same enemies of the Shiites who killed the imam are now in Syria and Iraq, the officers told the men.
After traveling to Iran, Mr. Kadhim came home for a break and then was shipped to Syria, where Hezbollah operatives trained him in sniper tactics.
Iran’s emphasis on defending the Shiite faith has led some here to conclude that its ultimate goal is to bring about an Iranian-style theocracy in Iraq. But there is a persistent sense that it just would not work in Iraq, which has a much larger native Sunni population and tradition, and Iraq’s clerics in Najaf, including Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, the world’s pre-eminent Shiite spiritual leader, oppose the Iranian system.
But Iran is taking steps to translate militia power into political power, much as it did with Hezbollah in Lebanon, and militia leaders have begun political organizing before next year’s parliamentary elections.
In April, Qais al-Khazali, a Shiite militia leader, delivered a speech to an audience of Iraqi college students, railing against the United States and the nefarious plotting of Turkey and Saudi Arabia. Then, a poet who was part of Mr. Khazali’s entourage stood up and began praising General Suleimani.
For the students, that was the last straw. Chants of “Iran out! Iran out!” began. Scuffles broke out between students and Mr. Khazali’s bodyguards, who fired their rifles into the air just outside the building.
“The thing that really provoked us was the poet,” said Mustafa Kamal, a student at the University of al-Qadisiya in Diwaniya, in southern Iraq, who participated in the protest.
Mr. Kamal and his fellow students quickly learned how dangerous it could be to stand up to Iran these days.
First, militiamen began threatening to haul them off. Then media outlets linked to the militias went after them, posting their pictures and calling them Baathists and enemies of Shiites. When a mysterious car appeared near Mr. Kamal’s house, his mother panicked that militiamen were coming for her son.
Then, finally, Mr. Kamal, a law student, and three of his friends received notices from the school saying they had been suspended for a year.
“We thought we had only one hope, the university,” he said. “And then Iran also interfered there.”
Mr. Khazali, whose political and militia organization, Asaib Ahl al-Haq, is deeply connected with Iran, has been on a speaking tour on campuses across Iraq as part of an effort to organize political support for next year’s national election. This has raised fears that Iran is trying not only to deepen its influence within Iraqi education, but also to transform militias into outright political and social organizations, much as it did with Hezbollah in Lebanon.
“It’s another type of Iranian infiltration and the expansion of Iran’s influence,” said Beriwan Khailany, a lawmaker and member of Parliament’s higher-education committee. “Iran wants to control the youth, and to teach them the Iranian beliefs, through Iraqis who are loyal to Iran.”
When a group of Qatari falcon hunters, “including members of the royal family, were kidnapped in 2015 while on safari in the southern deserts of Iraq, Qatar called Iran and its militia allies — not the central government in Baghdad.
For Mr. Abadi, the prime minister, the episode was an embarrassing demonstration of his government’s weakness at the hands of Iran, whose proxy militia Kataibb Hezbollah was believed to be behind the kidnapping.
So when the hostage negotiations were about to end, Mr. Abadi pushed back.
Around noon on a day in April, a government jet from Qatar landed in Baghdad, carrying a delegation of diplomats and 500 million euros stuffed into 23 black boxes.
The hunters were soon on their way home, but the ransom did not go to the Iranian-backed militiamen who had abducted the Qataris; the cash ended up in a central bank vault in Baghdad.
The seizure of the money had been ordered by Mr. Abadi, who was furious at the prospect of militias, and their Iranian and Hezbollah benefactors, being paid so richly right under the Iraqi government’s nose.
“Hundreds of millions to armed groups?” Mr. Abadi said in a public rant. “Is this acceptable?”
In Iraq, the kidnapping episode was seen as a violation of the country’s sovereignty and emblematic of Iran’s suffocating power over the Iraqi state.
In a post on Twitter, Mr. Zebari, the former finance minister, who was previously foreign minister, called the episode a “travesty.”
Mr. Zebari knows firsthand the power of Iran over the Iraqi state.
Last year, he said, he was ousted as finance minister because Iran perceived him as being too close to the United States. The account was verified by a member of Parliament who was involved in the removal of Mr. Zebari, and who spoke on the condition of anonymity to avoid angering Iran.
Mr. Zebari, who recounted the events in an interview from his mountainside mansion in northern Iraq, said that when President Barack Obama met with Mr. Abadi last September at the United Nations, the American leader personally lobbied to save Mr. Zebari’s job. Even that was not enough.
Mr. Abadi now finds himself in a difficult position. If he makes any move that can be seen as confrontational toward Iran, or as positioning himself closer to the United States, it could place a cloud over his political future.
“He had two options: to be with the Americans or with the Iranians,” said Izzat Shahbander, a prominent Iraqi Shiite leader who once lived in exile in Iran while Mr. Hussein was in power. “And he chose to be with the Americans.”
Mr. Abadi, who took office in 2014 with the support of both the United States and Iran, has seemed more emboldened to push back against Iranian pressure since President Trump took office.
In addition to seizing the ransom money, he has promoted an ambitious project for an American company to secure the highway from Baghdad to Amman, Jordan, which Iran has opposed. He has also begun discussing with the United States the terms of a deal to keep American forces behind after the Islamic State is defeated.
Some are seeing an American troop commitment as a chance to revisit the 2011 withdrawal of United States forces that seemingly opened a door for Iran.
When American officials in Iraq began the slow wind-down of the military mission there, in 2009, some diplomats in Baghdad were cautiously celebrating one achievement: Iran seemed to be on its heels, its influence in the country waning.
“Over the last year, Iran has lost the strategic initiative in Iraq,” one diplomat wrote in a cable, later released by WikiLeaks.
But other cables sent warnings back to Washington that were frequently voiced by Iraqi officials they spoke to: that if the Americans left, then Iran would fill the vacuum.
Ryan C. Crocker, the American ambassador in Iraq from 2007 to 2009, said that if the United States left again after the Islamic State was defeated, “it would be effectively just giving the Iranians a free rein.”
But many Iraqis say the Iranians already have free rein. And while the Trump administration has indicated that it will pay closer attention to Iraq as a means to counter Iran, the question is whether it is too late.
“Iran is not going to sit silent and do nothing,” said Sami al-Askari, a senior Shiite politician who has good relationships with both the Iranians and Americans. “They have many means. Frankly, the Americans can’t do anything.”