The Best Defense

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The Best Defense

Mulling Iraq options: Begin by telling me which of these groups you want to bomb

By Ali Khedery

Best Defense guest columnist

As President Obama considers his options and consults with Congress, I ask my fellow Americans calling for immediate military action: who do you wanna bomb? Because, as you'll see below, Iraq is a target-rich environment, where literally all factions have blood-soaked hands. These are the players actively fighting across Iraq today:

The Sunnis (numbering approximately 6 million Iraqis):

1.    Dawlat al-Sham wa al-Iraq al-Islamiya, the Islamic State in Iraq and al-Sham (ISIS). The organization formerly led by Abu Musab al-Zarqawi and formerly called al Qaeda in Iraq (AQI). A group so radical that even core al Qaeda global leaders have disavowed them. Fighters include vicious, radicalized Iraqis, Syrians, Chechens, Saudis, Yemenis, Afghans, Pakistanis, North Africans, and individuals with western passports. Declared it had summarily executed 1,400 Shiite Arab Iraqi Army soldiers this weekend. As with AQI, it is actively working to spark an apocalyptic sectarian war. It may now be the wealthiest terrorist organization in the world, having seized up to $1.5 billion dollars of cash, tanks, Humvees, explosives, and arms over the past week.

2.    Jaish al-Islam, the Islamic Army. A group of Salafist Baathist officers. Led by, among others, former Iraqi parliamentarian Khalaf al-Ulayyan. Waged a jihad against the United States military as an "occupying" force, favoring the use of car bombs and other improvised explosive devices throughout central Iraq. Used mafia-style extortion and kidnapping, including of fellow Sunnis, to maintain financing. Participated in reconciliation talks with the United States in 2005-8. Fought an intermittent intra-jihadi war against AQI in the north in 2005-7. Like all the other Sunni groups, is thought to be receiving financing from radical but wealthy Gulf Sunni Arab individuals.

3.    Jaysh Rijal al-Tariqah al-Naqashabandiyah, JRTN, the Army of the Men of the Naqshabandi Order. A group primarily composed of Sufi Sunni Arab former Iraqi army and intelligence senior officers who were radicalized after being purged with no hope of ever earning a living again - the "irreconcilables." Enjoys a base of support in the Tikrit-Hawijah area and is committed to retaking Kirkuk from the Kurds and Baghdad from the "Safavids." They took up arms against the United States in 2003; indirectly engaged in covert negotiations with America in 2005; indirectly participated in the Iraqi elections in 2010 (and won), only to be purged again. Led by Saddam's vice president, Izzat Ibrahim al-Douri, a fugitive.

4.    Kataib Thawrat al-Eshreen, the 1920s Revolutionary Brigades. Composed of radicalized, extremist Sunni Arab Iraqis gathered around a core of the Iraqi Muslim Brotherhood and often working in concert with Zarqawi's AQI. Led by anti-American cleric Harith al-Dhari, who orchestrated numerous terrorist campaigns before the surge, which included kidnappings, bombings, torture, and the use of rockets and mortars against security forces. Also waged jihad against Shiite "heretics" and the "occupying" U.S. military, favoring indiscriminate car bombs against Shiite civilians.

5.    Secular, moderate Iraqi Sunni Arab tribal members including those from the Shammar, Duleim, Obeid, and Jibour tribes from northern and central Iraq; some of these tribes include vast numbers of Shiites, too. Intentionally deprived of political, economic, and social status under Iraq's traditional patronage system by Prime Minister Maliki's government, they are revolting in the face of mass arrests, no jobs, no security, no electricity, and no water in their villages. Having been a part of the secular Iraqiyya coalition in 2010, they felt betrayed and resentful after they won the elections, only to see Maliki and other Iranian-backed elements dominate the government in Baghdad. After the arrests of Iraq's top two Sunni leaders, Vice President Tariq al-Hashimi and Finance Minister Rafea Essawi, the tribes attempted to form Sunni regions like Kurdistan, as is allowed under the Iraqi Constitution. Maliki crushed the effort with his U.S.-armed and -trained forces. Their violent revolt over the past week -- alongside mortal enemies like ISIS and other militant groups (whom they will wage war against in the future) -- is precisely what we saw in 2003 after Ambassador L. Paul Bremer III's disastrous policies. These tribes are not motivated by barbaric terrorism or a messianic call for an Islamic caliphate like ISIS, but by the desire for self-determination. That is why they refer to themselves as "revolutionaries," not "jihadis" like ISIL -- they believe they are revolting against a sectarian, Iranian client government in Baghdad.

As we learned the hard way before the surge, if you bomb the tribes you lose all chance of peace and reconciliation in the future, as they are the only real means via which an insurgency can be quelled. If they don't take up arms or at least refuse to cooperate with ISIS and other extremists, then there is no hope of a future in Iraq. Although Maliki has lost the Sunni tribes forever, any chances for a future Iraqi leader to reconcile with them would be decimated by military assaults on the tribes.

The Shiites (numbering approximately 15 million Iraqis):

1.      The Iraqi Government. Under Prime Minister Maliki, the state security organizations have been purged of all individuals not loyal to abetting or advancing Shiite Islamist rule, and specifically, the Dawa party, and even more specifically, Maliki's faction of Dawa, eliciting critiques from Muqtada al-Sadr that the PM is a "dictator" and a "tyrant." Maliki has bypassed the constitutional checks and balances and appointed himself "acting" minister of interior, defense, and intelligence throughout the entirety of his four-year term; he has bypassed the legal chain of command by having generals report directly to him (under a structure that precisely mirrors Saddam's police state); and he has actively welcomed the intervention of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards and their proxies in Iraqi affairs, including through the very Iranian-backed Shiite militias that killed countless Americans and Iraqis over the past decade.

2.      The Iranian Revolutionary Guards Qods (Jerusalem) Force, IRGC-QF. As has been the case since 1979, the IRGC-QF reports directly to the Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, and is actively waging a campaign to advance Iranian hegemony by destabilizing or coopting Middle Eastern countries through the export of the Islamic Revolution, which calls for velayat-e faqih, theocratic rule under the divinely-appointed Iranian Supreme Leader. Their top paid assets are among the leadership in Lebanon, Syria, and Iraq, forming what King Abdullah of Jordan famously referred to as the "Shiite Crescent" of allied and sympathetic powers. As has been the case in Damascus since the start of the "Arab Spring," IRGC-QF officers are now flooding into Baghdad to shore up their Iraqi Government and Shia militia proxies. In some cases, IRGC-QF officers are actually exercising command and control functions across Iraq and Syria on behalf of the Baghdad and Damascus governments.

Because Iran views itself as the self-appointed "protector of the Shiites" and the IRGC-QF is the action arm by which it carries out this vital mission, it is easy to understand why it is taking such desperate measures in Syria and Iraq to safeguard against an enemy that considers all Shiites as heretics worthy only of death. While conventional wisdom is that the IRGC-QF is in Iraq because Iran seeks to defend itself against the existential threat of ISIS/Sunni extremism, they also see it as their deeply held belief that it is their religious obligation under God to carry out this mission.

The IRGC-QF is commanded by General Qasem Soleimani, widely referred to as the "most powerful man in Iraq and the Middle East" by Iraqi leaders. Iran's ambassador to Iraq, Hassan Danaie Far, is also an IRGC-QF general.

3.      Phaylak Badr, the Badr Corps. Led by Iraqi Transportation Minister Hadi al-Amiri, Badr was created as a formal part of the IRGC-QF and still functions in many ways as a forward-deployed IRGC element. Armed, trained, and financed by Iran during the Iran-Iraq war, Badr returned to Iraq as the militant wing of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq in 2003. Among their first set of instructions from Tehran: hunt down and assassinate all Iraqi Air Force pilots who had bombed Iran during the war. More recently, they have participated in attacks on Mujahedin-e Khalq, the Iranian opposition group located inside Iraq, and which is seeking relocation abroad.

4.      Asaib Ahl al-Haq, League of the Righteous. A group loyal to the teachings of Grand Ayatollah Mohammed al-Sadr, Muqtada's father, who had been brutally tortured and executed by Saddam Hussein. They cooperated closely with the IRGC-QF and were rewarded with tens of millions of dollars of support from Tehran. Led by Laith and Qais Khazali, they are responsible for the kidnapping and execution of five American Army soldiers in Karbala as well as the successful kidnapping and hostage taking of five UK civilians in 2007. They were directly instructed by General Soleimani to carry out the Karbala attack, originally meant to be a hostage taking, in response to a U.S. Special Operations forces' raid in Erbil that captured five Iranian intelligence operatives. At Iran's instruction, AAH also conducted countless attacks against the U.S. and U.K. militaries in southern Iraq, notability with explosively formed penetrators (EFPs), Iranian-made devices that slice through armor. AAH was also part of the shortsighted US policy of "Reconciliation" in 2008-2009 which was intended to reconcile AAH with the Iraqi government. However, what began as good intentions to curb AAH's attacks against U.S. forces by bringing AAH back into the Iraqi political fold ultimately turned into a protracted negotiation which led to the release of one of the U.K. hostages who was still alive. The four other U.K. hostages had been executed while in AAH custody. In return for the single Britain, the U.S. released over 800 AAH detainees, to include AAH leadership, nearly all of who returned to AAH and are fighting in Iraq or Syria presently on behalf of Iran. 

5.      Kataib Youm al-Mawoud, the Promised Day Brigades. The core of Muqtada al-Sadr's Jaysh al-Mahdi, PDB remained loyal to Sadr while AAH and KH splintered. Like the other Shiite militias, PDB conducted thousands of attacks against Coalition Forces across Iraq, including via EFPs, rockets, and mortars. Among its leaders is former Iraqi Deputy Minister of Health Hakim al-Zamili, who led a death squad which killed Sunni Arabs, then called their families to retrieve their corpses from Iraqi hospitals, before liquidating the spouses and children as part of a broader campaign to ethnically-cleanse Baghdad.

6.      Kataib Hezbollah (KH), Hezbollah Brigades. Led by Karim Abu Islam and mostly derived from former Badr Corps members. KH was IRGC-QF's most loyal Iraqi proxy group throughout the Iraq war due to their ideological alignment with Iran (they believe in velayat-e faqih) and they received the most advanced weapons and training from IRGC-QF. As a result, they were involved in some of the most devastating attacks against US forces using large caliber rockets, EFPs and they were the only IRGC-QF proxy group entrusted with the deadly Improvised Rocket Assisted Mortar (IRAM), which they used effectively against US bases from 2007 until the U.S. withdrawal in 2011. Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis also has extensive ties to KH. A former Badr Corps commander and Dawa party leader, Muhandis was convicted of bombing the U.S. and French embassies in Kuwait in 1983 (he was sentenced to death in absentia by the Kuwaitis after he escape from prison and fled to Iran). Muhandis is widely considered to be Qasem Soleimani's right-hand man in Iraq and is now an adviser to Prime Minister Maliki.

7.      Kata'ib Sayyid al-Shuhada (KSS), the Battalion of the Sayyid's Martyrs. KSS is a small Iraq-based IRGC-QF proxy that broke away from KH due to leadership divisions and formed their own group. They fought in Syria and Iraq and are comprised of many former Badr Corps members like KH. They are ideologically aligned with Iran and believe in velayat-e faqih. Though small, they are highly trained, use advanced weaponry supplied by IRGC-QF, and are a capable fighting force.

8.      Harakat al-Nujaba (HAN), the Movement of the Outstanding. HAN is an Iraq-based IRGC-QF proxy that broke away from AAH due to leadership divisions and formed their own group. HAN is led by former senior AAH leader Akram al-Kabi, fought in Syria on behalf of Iran, and also has a presence in Iraq. Kabi led AAH from 2007 through late 2009 until the U.S. released detained AAH leader, Qais al-Khazali, as part of reconciliation efforts. During Kabi's tenure as the leader of AAH, he was involved in directing attacks against U.S. forces in Iraq and ultimately left AAH due to disagreements with Khazali.

9.      Lebanese Hezbollah, LH, the Party of God. Like its IRGC-QF patrons, Hezbollah is designated by the U.S. Treasury as a global terrorist organization. Let by Lebanese cleric Sayyid Hassan Nasrallah, and under instructions from Tehran, Hezbollah dispatched hundreds of its members to Iraq and since 2003 to mentor, train, and fight alongside other Shiite Islamist militant groups. Fighting alongside the IRGC-QF, the Iraqi military, and Iraqi militias today, Hezbollah's perhaps most notorious involvement in Iraq was when one of its top commanders, Ali Mousa Daqduq, assisted PDB's Qais Khazali in the kidnapping and execution of the five American soldiers in Karbala. Arrested by U.S. Special Operations forces shortly thereafter, the United States sought Daqduq's extradition and prosecution for years. The Iraqi government refused, and Dawduq was eventually released by Prime Minister Maliki's government. Thought to be armed with more than 100,000 Iranian-made Katyusha rockets, Nasrallah has routinely vowed to "wipe out" Israel in the case of a war over Iran's budding nuclear program.

As you can see, Iran has tens of thousands of loyal, capable, highly trained proxies available to them in Iraq, all of which were involved in attacking U.S. forces in Iraq during the war. Though the capabilities differ between these groups, all are loyal to Iran and continue to operate under IRGC-QF direction and guidance and will lead Iran's fight against ISIS and Sunni extremists as events unfold in Iraq. Many of these proxy groups are also integrated into Iraq's Security Forces (army and police) which makes them more than just a militia. They are a force multiplier with quasi-Iraqi governmental status fighting not only on behalf of Iran, but fully sanctioned by the Iraqi government.

Ali Khedery is chairman and CEO of Dragoman Partners LLC, a strategic consultancy headquartered in Dubai. Previously he was an executive with Exxon Mobil Corporation where he was the architect and chief political negotiator of the company's entry into Kurdistan. He also has worked for the U.S. State and Defense departments, where he served as special assistant to five American ambassadors to Iraq and as senior adviser to three commanders of U.S. Central Command. He was the longest continuously serving American official in Iraq.

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