Exclusive: Iran’s Ramazan Corps – Iranian-Backed Terrorism in Iraq
by CHRIS CARTER
October 9, 2008
Bill Roggio, managing editor of The Long War Journal (which provides in-depth reporting and analysis on the war on terror), says - despite press reports to the contrary - "Iranian influence [in Iraq] has declined since the surge."
Roggio should know. An adjunct fellow at the Foundation for the Defense of Democracies and a contributing author at The Weekly Standard, Roggio has been following the war since 2003, including several trips to Iraq as an embedded reporter.
In an exclusive interview, Roggio discusses Iran's support of Shia terrorist groups inside that country.
CHRIS CARTER: You have extensively covered Iran's backing of numerous Shia terror groups in Iraq. This should be of great concern to America as hundreds of U.S. troops have been killed as a result of Iranian intervention. Which groups do the Iranians support?
BILL ROGGIO: Iran's backing of the Shia insurgency has been widely downplayed in the U.S. press. But Iran has worked to destabilize the nascent Iraqi government while murdering U.S. troops. The U.S. military estimates about 10% of U.S. deaths are caused by Iranian-supported groups. Iran supplies the deadly explosively formed penetrators, or EFPs, as well as rockets, mortars, sniper rifles, and other weapons to its proxies in Iraq. It has set up an entire command, the Ramazan Corps, to direct operations in Iraq.
Iran backs elements of the Mahdi Army, as well as the Hezbollah Brigades, the Army of the Righteous, the Shebaini and Kazali networks, and other smaller, lesser known terror groups.
CARTER: U.S. and Iraqi forces are continually capturing or killing members of these groups. How many Iranian-backed terrorists would you say we are dealing with in Iraq? Has their activity been increasing or decreasing recently?
ROGGIO: The exact numbers are unclear, but I'd estimate about 5,000 to 10,000 or so are being supported amongst the various groups. The activity has definitely decreased since the Iraqi government launched major offensives against the Mahdi Army and other Iranian-backed terror groups in central and southern Baghdad this spring and summer. Iraqi and U.S. intelligence believes those who fled the fighting and went to Iran to regroup may be filtering back into Iraq and are preparing to conduct new strikes.
CARTER: Is it known how much money Iran is spending on the financing these groups?
ROGGIO: I have not seen any official estimate of this. U.S. and Iraqi forces often find large sums of money in safe houses during raids. I would estimate that tens to hundreds of millions of dollars is invested in standing up the Shia terror groups.
CARTER: What other types of support does Iran give to these groups?
ROGGIO: Hezbollah and Iran's Revolutionary Guards Corps provides weapons, training, logistical support, cash, and often provides operational support to the Shia terror groups. Hezbollah and Iranian agents have been reported to have provided command and control for Mahdi Army forces during the battles in the spring and summer.
CARTER: Where do these terrorists train, and who trains them?
ROGGIO: Until operations in the south, there were at least three training camps inside Iraq. The three camps were located in southern Iraq in Qadisiyah, Dhi Qhar, and Basrah provinces. Camps have been identified in Al Sheeb in Iran across the border from Maysan province, as well as outside Tehran.
Hezbollah and Iran's Revolutionary Guards Corps - Qods Force conduct the training. The U.S. detained a senior Hezbollah leader who was specifically assigned to transform and train the Mahdi Army into an organization akin to Lebanese Hezbollah. Other senior Iranian Qods Force commanders have been captured inside Iraq.
CARTER: How do the terrorists and weapons get into Iraq from Iran?
ROGGIO: The weapons are smuggled across the border at either the border entry points or along the porous border in southern and central Iraq. They often are hidden in commercial shipments as Iran and Iraq are major trading partners.
CARTER: In February of 2007, the U.S. military said that 170 U.S. troops were killed by EFP attacks, which could be traced back to Iran. Then following the surge, the use of EFPs dropped dramatically. Has Iranian influence in Iraq been on the rise or fall lately? Have the EFP attacks been replaced by a different tactic?
ROGGIO: Despite press reports to the contrary, Iranian influence has declined since the surge. The Mahdi Army, Iran's main proxy, has been disbanded and its leadership is in hiding. The Sadrist movement, the political wing of Muqtada al Sadr's party, has decided not to participate in the upcoming provincial elections. Sadr continues to whine about U.S. forces in Iraq but is powerless to influence political events in a meaningful way. Iran has been forced to back the splinter groups (Hezbollah Brigades, Army of the Righteous, etc.) in lieu of Mahdi, and while these groups can conduct terror attacks, they still have limited ability to influence the political situation. Meanwhile, the Iraq security forces have grown into a legitimate fighting force and are beginning to emerge from primarily a counterinsurgency force into a real military. The Army is buying U.S. M-1 tanks while the Air Force is purchasing F-16s. This is causing great concern inside Iran.
EFPs attacks are down, but these weapons are still used. Iraqi and U.S. troops have been finding and destroying large EFP caches. Iran has assisted with a weapon called the IRAM, or Improvised Rocket Assisted Mortar. These are basically makeshift rockets placed on crude launchers on the back of trucks. They are largely ineffective due to the inability to aim them but could be deadly if they got off a lucky shot.
CARTER: You have said on your website that almost two thousand Mahdi Army fighters were killed in fighting since March. Thousands more have been wounded or captured. What has become of the remnants of the Mahdi Army?
ROGGIO: Those numbers have held up. A Mahdi Army commander admitted that more than 1,000 of its fighters were killed during clashes in Baghdad alone. The Mahdi Army lost more than 400 in Basrah, and the rest were killed in fighting in a host of cities in the center and south. Many of these battles went unreported in the press.
The Mahdi Army has been splintered, demoralized, and defeated. After the Mahdi Army capitulated in Sadr City, its own leaders were wondering why its forces were left to be slaughtered by U.S. and Iraqi troops. Many Mahdi leaders were angry. Sadr ordered the Mahdi Army to disband and reform as an aide organization. The more radical members of the group have broken off and formed their own terror groups (the Army of the Righteous is one example), while some moderate elements have decided to work with the government. Sadr ordered a small cadre (about 200 fighters) to continue to resist the U.S. "occupation."
CARTER: The Associated Press wrote that Shia death squads are returning to Iraq to assassinate Iraqi officials, along with US and Iraqi troops. Could this be an Iranian "October Surprise," aimed at impacting the U.S. elections?
ROGGIO: I doubt it. Iraqi and U.S. forces are actively hunting the Iranian-backed groups. More than 150 have been captured in the past three weeks alone. Now that these groups are unable to control territory, they have little ability to control events. They may be able to conduct terror attacks, but these will not be decisive.
Visit Chris Carter online at crushingchris.com.