Iranian military involvement has dramatically increased in Iraq over the past year as Tehran has delivered desperately needed aid to Baghdad in its fight against Islamic State militants, say U.S., Iraqi and Iranian sources. In the eyes of Obama administration officials, equally concerned about the rise of the brutal Islamist group, that’s an acceptable role – for now.
Yet as U.S. troops return to a limited mission in Iraq, American officials remain apprehensive about the potential for renewed friction with Iran, either directly or via Iranian-backed militias that once attacked U.S. personnel on a regular basis.
A senior Iranian cleric with close ties to Tehran’s leadership, who spoke on the condition of anonymity to discuss security matters, said that since the Islamic State’s capture of much of northern Iraq in June, Iran has sent more than 1,000 military advisers to Iraq, as well as elite units, and has conducted airstrikes and spent more than $1 billion on military aid.
“The areas that have been liberated from Daesh have been thanks to Iran’s advice, command, leaders and support,” the cleric said, using the Arabic acronym for the group.
At the same time, Iraq’s Shiite-led government is increasingly reliant on the powerful militias and a massive Shiite volunteer force, which together may now equal the size of Iraq’s security forces.
Although the Obama administration says it is not coordinating directly with Iran, the two nations’ arms-length alliance against the Islamic State is an uncomfortable reality. That’s not only because some of the militia shock troops who have proved effective in fighting the Islamic State battled U.S. forces during the 2003-2011 war there, but also because, in Syria, Iran continues to support President Bashar al-Assad, whom the United States would like to see toppled. U.S. diplomats, meanwhile, are pushing ahead with negotiations to reach a deal on Iran’s nuclear program to prevent the country from developing a nuclear weapon.
Ali Khedery, who advised several U.S. ambassadors in Iraq, said the tensions that fueled a U.S.-Iran confrontation in Iraq after 2003 are masked by the shared desire to defeat the Islamic State, also known as ISIS.
“ISIS will be defeated,” said Khedery, who runs a strategic consulting firm in Dubai. “The problem is that afterwards, there will still be a dozen militias, hardened by decades of battle experience, funded by Iraqi oil, and commanded or at least strongly influenced by [Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps]. And they will be the last ones standing.”
Read more at The Washington Post.