Baghdad Turns Away from US, Opts for Iran-Russian Axis
With ISIS booted out of Mosul – a victory the Iraqi army could never have won without direct US military planning and involvement – Iraq’s Prime Minister Haydar Al-Abadi quickly threw off his ties with Washington, against all expectations, and jumped aboard the Russian-Iranian axis.
Iraq and Iran on July 23 signed a defense accord which raised concerns in Washington. They agreed to “step up their military cooperation and the fight against terrorism and extremism.”
Defense Ministers Hossein Dehghan for Iran and Erfan al-Hiyali for Iraq also signed a memorandum of understanding covering border security, logistics and training, cooperation and shared intelligence for “fighting terrorism and extremism” and other issues.
The documents, signed in Tehran, are diagnosed by DEBKA Weekly’s military sources as opening the door to the attachment of Iranian military advisers to most Iraqi army operational units, to its general command, its military intelligence and to the defense ministry in Baghdad.
The only contingent barring Iranian advisers for now is the 36th Commando Battalion, the first special operations unit developed by the United States after the fall of Saddam Hussein 14 years ago. To this day, this 8,000-strong component of Iraq’s elite Counter-Terrorism Service is the most professional and politically reliable element available to the Baghdad government.
However, the entire Counter-Terror Service, which successfully fronted the battle for Mosul against ISIS for nine months, suffered 40 percent losses and is exhausted.
By throwing in his lot with Tehran, Abadi is gambling with his regime and his own future. Ditching his dependence on US military aid in the aftermath of the Mosul campaign exposes Iraq to major hazards:
1. Still to be mopped up are the ISIS fugitives hiding out in Iraq’s deserts, borderlands, jungle groves and cities. That job can only be managed by the competent counterterrorism units available from the US-led coalition and their sophisticated intelligence resources.
2. The Iraqi army’s loyalties are divided. The powerful Popular Mobilization Forces headed by Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis and the F faction of the Badr Brigades and its leader, Hadi al-America, both take their orders from Iran’s Al Qods chief Gen, Qassem Soleimani of the Revolutionary Guards and are outside Abadi’s ambit. The prime minister is badly short of loyalist forces fully under his control.
3. At the same time, Al Abadi won’t have missed the Trump administration’s growing inclination to pull the US out of its military involvement in Syria and Iraq (See separate article on this.). This too will have been a factor in his decision to plump for the Iranian option in preference to lining up with the Americans.
This choice may also lead the Iraqi prime minister to drop his opposition to Soliemani’s plan to conjoin Iraqi and Syrian military units, especially those posted on the 900km border between their two countries. The Americans resisted this plan, in order to block Tehran’s goal of a land corridor between the two countries, but their withdrawal from the picture will free Abadi to make his own reckoning on the issue.
One decision he has already made was to buy tanks in Russia. This week the Iraqi and Russian governments signed a pivotal deal for the purchase of “a large batch” of advanced Russian T-90 tanks. The purchase was described sarcastically by Vladimir Kozhin, President Vladimir Putin’s adviser on military-technical cooperation, as “resupplying” the losses of Iraqis’ American M1A1 Abrams fleet, which was reduced by the battle for Mosul.
The Russian manufacturers are committed to delivering 73 T-90S and T-90SK tanks to Iraq by the end of this year. T-90S is the export version and SKS designates the unit commander’s model.
The T-90’s’s explosive reactive armor and infrared jammers provide enhanced protection for the crew and its systems against inbound rocket-propelled grenades and anti-tank missiles. The tank’s 2A46M 125mm main gun fires both armor-piercing shells and anti-tank missiles.
Since Syria is already introducing these sophisticated tanks to its army, conditions are shaping up for the two armies or sections thereof to merge under a unified Iranian command. The potential US drawdown of its forces, and the successful US-led battle for Mosul, may end up catapulting Solemani into the role of top gun of an interlinked Syrian-Iraqi military force.