At the outset of a thorough exploration of the extent of Iran’s penetration and control of Iraq, the Bush administration and the American military have discovered that Tehran has dug itself in a lot deeper and more systematically than had been supposed.
Their findings suggest it may be too late to turn the clock back.
Iranian influence has struck deep roots that may be impossible to pull out, even if American cross-border strikes into Iran can be undertaken.
Tehran’s mark is most carefully and deeply structured in the British-controlled South.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly discloses some of the most disturbing findings which have come to light since President George W. Bush launched his revised Iraq policy on Jan. 10.
The Irbil raid snagged No. 3 in Revolutionary Guards hierarchy
US officials have given out very little information on the five Iranian nationals captured by American troops in the northern Iraqi town of Irbil on January 11, one day after the Bush policy speech. The captured men were tersely described as members of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards who were engaged in training Shiite militias.
DEBKA-Net Weekly reveals that US forces carried out not one but three raids in Irbil. Their biggest catch was Iranian colonel Fars Hassami, No. 3 in the Revolutionary Guards al Quds Brigades hierarchy, two below the Brigades commander, General Qassem Sulemaini.
When the Americans stormed the Irbil “liaison center” housing the local RG command, Col. Hassami pulled out an Iranian diplomatic document and claimed immunity. The raiding force had been told to treat the document as fake, although it was genuine, and the colonel as a suspected terrorist.
The interrogation of Hassami and his four fellow detainees yielded some eye-openers, according to DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s military and intelligence sources. It was supplemented by sweeps of their offices and computers.
1. Col. Hassam was found to have been in charge of Iranian operations in northern and central Iraq – from Kurdish Irbil down to the northern outskirts of Baghdad – and all links with Iraq’s Shiite militias, including Moqtada Sadr‘s Medhi Army, and Sunni insurgent groups.
Hassam was the live wire behind Iran’s military, intelligence and logistic operations in the violence-stricken towns in the northern half of Iraq, Tal Afar, Mosul, Haditha, Kirkuk, Samarra, the Banji refinery town, Tikrit, Ramadi, Falluja and Baquba.
2. This same RG colonel led an intensive recruitment campaign for the Sadrist Mehdi Army, which controls a large section of Baghdad. Hassam’s recruiting center in Ur north of Baghdad appealed to volunteers aged 15 to 45. Each was handed $1,500 in cash.
3. The second US raid in Irbil uncovered a stockpile of Iranian weapons. It consisted of 40 tons of explosives, shoulder-borne anti-air missiles, anti-tank missiles, hundreds of automatic rifles and a pile of ordnance made in Iran.
Stockpiles of Iranian weapons found in Irbil
4. Inventories of weapons and ammo supplied the Medhi Army in Baghdad and Kirkuk by Iran in the last two months were recorded on computer hard disks. Maps showed the locations of anti-air missile positions for shooting down American helicopters.
5. The Iranian captives also named the RG’s overall commander of Tehran’s program to dominate Iraq. The name of Col. Bassem Abtakhi struck a familiar chord with the American interrogators. Informed Middle East intelligence circles have come up against him before as the RG representative attached to the Hizballah command in Lebanon in 2004 and 2005. They were told he now operates out of the Fajr base in Ahwaz, capital of the southern Iranian province of Khozestan.
Another familiar face is that of the RG officer nicknamed Mahdi Muhandes (Mahdi the Engineer – a terrorist euphemism for bomb-maker). His real name is Col. Muhammad Ali Ibrahimi and the captured men named him as responsible for smuggling Iranian supplies of arms and military equipment into Iraq.
It was decided in Washington this week to prolong the detention of the five captured Iranians – and possibly remove them from Iraq for further questioning, because they seem to be holding back more secrets than they have disclosed. Tehran’s protests have been comparatively mild. The working hypothesis of US intelligence is that Col. Hassami has at least two counterparts serving as Iran’s regional commanders in the rest of Iraq.
Iranian military airfields planned for S. Iraq
The American embassy and US military command in Baghdad were astonished to learn this week that the Shiite district administration of the holy city of Karbala south of Baghdad had tendered for the construction of a new Shiite international airport.
The southern oil town of Basra already has an international airport and Karbala is only 85 kilometers away from Baghdad’s international airport to the north.
Questioned by the Americans, the Karbala authorities explained they needed their own airport to cater to the three million pilgrims visiting the shrines of Karbala and next door Najef each year.
However, Iran’s meddling hands soon surfaced under a cursory intelligence check. The Revolutionary Guards commanders holding clandestine sway over the Karbala district administration were found to have earmarked one billion dollars for this airport.
Far from being an innocent facility to serve holy pilgrims, the Americans saw the outline of a military air base for the use of the RG’s air force.
This plan came to light as a result of a British intelligence probe in Basra. Brought to light there was an Iranian conspiracy to take over the town’s air field after the British troop withdrawal in April. There, too, a RG unit would be on hand for the takeover.
According to documents seized in Basra, Iran plans to provide itself with two air bases in southern Iraq – one in Basra and one in Karbala – as counterweights for American air installations in the region.
The two air bases, on top of Iran’s planned rail system for moving troops between Iraq and Iran (first disclosed in DEBKA-Net-Weekly 285 on Jan. 13), add key blocks to the formidable strategic edifice Tehran is constructing in Iraq, for which many billions of dollars are being laid out.
Iran’s preparations to take over the predominantly Shiite southern half of Iraq from the grass roots up has begun to emerge from information coming from captured militiamen and paid informers. With the departure of British forces, Iranian agents are already in place to seize control of the institutions governing every town in southern Iraq.
Local militias are being drafted from the masses of jobless men to guard these institutions. The militias operating under RG command will be trained to fight the troops who are sent from Baghdad to impose the central government’s authority on the South.
They will be sent when it is realized that, as soon as British forces are gone, the militias under RG command are under orders to launch ethnic cleansing operations against Sunni Arabs, the same as Shiites are conducting in Baghdad.
However, the local militias will be well armed. They will break open the many secret arms caches packed with hardware smuggled through the Shatt al Arb from Iran, including heavy mortars and rockets, and use them to fend off the soldiers from Baghdad.
Tehran’s agents in Iraq calculate that the Baghdad contingents will turn tail as soon as they realize what is in store for them in Basra.
In view of Tehran’s elaborate preparations, the Bush administration may find that the joint Iraqi-US crackdown to clean up Baghdad is not enough. It may be necessary to fight off Iranian domination of Iraq outside of Baghdad too.