How much has Iran helped Iraq against Islamic State? The answer is political.

Some Iraqi Shiite officials credit Iran with saving Baghdad from Islamic State forces, deriding US military support as ineffective or slow. But Sunnis say Iranian assistance comes at a high price.

Scott Peterson/The Christian Science Monitor/Getty Images
The mayor of the Iraqi city of Khalis, Uday al-Khadran (right), looks at a map with Iraqi Army officers while overseeing the building of a new dirt road made to ease the fight by Iraqi Army and Shiite militia forces against Islamic State militants in Diyala Province south of Samarra near al-Hawi, Iraq, on Dec. 15, 2014.

The closer one gets to Iraq’s front line with the Islamic State, the more evidence one finds of Iran’s deep involvement in Baghdad's battle against Sunni jihadists.

Last June, after IS swept across the Syrian border into Iraq, Shiite Iran was the first to provide guns, ammunition, and military advisers. It drew on its decades-long experience in organizing Shiite militias in foreign lands to bolster Iraq’s beleaguered armed forces.

Two to three Iranian military aircraft now arrive daily in Baghdad; Iran sold Iraq nearly $10 billion in weapons and hardware in 2014, the Associated Press reported Monday.

But Iraqi perceptions of Iran’s military assistance are often colored by sectarian politics. And while many credit Iran’s role as decisive on the ground, assessments vary of its military value, particularly when compared with a US-led air campaign that the Pentagon says has struck more than 3,200 IS targets in Syria and Iraq.

For their part, Iranian officials champion both their role in “saving” Baghdad and the prowess of Maj.-Gen. Qassem Soleimani, the Qods Force commander, in swiftly halting and then reversing the advance of IS forces in Iraq’s northeastern Diyala Province. They also assert that the US effort has been “ineffective” and “not serious.”

“Without Iran, Iraq would be collapsed by now,” says Uday al-Khadran, the Shiite mayor of Khalis, 35 miles north of Baghdad, whose office has worked closely to marshal Iran-backed Shiite militias against IS.

Iran gave support “from all sides: morale, military and personnel support,” says Mr. Khadran. “The only effective country that helps Iraq is Iran.”

Coalition air campaign

Iraq’s Shiite prime minister, Haidar al-Abadi, has welcomed US airstrikes, but voiced criticism of parts of the US role. On Sunday he said the US-led coalition had been “very slow” in support and training of the Iraqi Army, though he allowed there “has been an acceleration” in the last two weeks. 

The Pentagon said last week it is “confident that the destruction level is high” from the coalition air campaign.

Not all Iraqi Shiites are dismissive of the US role. Some say US airpower, and not Iran's on the ground support,  was the key to holding IS at the gates of Baghdad.

It's difficult to overstate the impact that the fall of Mosul to IS last June has had on the nation's sectarian politics. Just days after Mosul fell, Iraqi Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani – the country's most revered Shiite cleric whose political interventions are very rare – issued a fatwa in which he called on "all able-bodied Iraqis" to defend the Iraqi nation.

That was widely taken as encouragement for the formation of Shiite militias, something Mr. Sistani's representatives say they oppose. But nevertheless, his call to arms has resulted in a surge of recruits for Shiite militias, which Iran has long backed, both before and after US troops invaded Iraq in 2003. 

Shiite militias resented

The Iranian strategy has resurrected Iraq's Shiite militias and deployed them effectively against IS on some front lines, those same militia contributed to tens of thousands of deaths at the peak of Iraq’s sectarian battles from 2006-2008.

Officials of Iraq’s Sunni minority say human rights abuses by the Shiite militias are as rampant now as they were 5 years ago. And they grate at the number of banners strung up with Iranian revolutionary slogans – against Israel, for example, or to support religious pilgrims – along with images of Iran’s previous and current supreme leaders, Ayatollahs Ruhollah Khomeini and Ali Khamenei.

“The pictures of these Iranian imams on Baghdad streets annoys the Sunnis, and that raises sectarian feelings among the Sunnis,” says Talal al-Zobaei, a Sunni former lawmaker and political scientist. “From the Sunni view, [Shiite militias] are enemies, they are killers.”

“If the militias become strong, it will be for the benefit of Iran,” says Hisham Alhashimi, a strategic analyst in Baghdad. “Iran will decide if this monster is to be contained or to run wild, and whether they want it to be part of [official] Iraqi forces or not. Even the [top clerics] can’t control them. This part of the story is in the hands of Iran completely.”

There is deep irony in the fact that Iranian generals who fought the 1980s Iran-Iraq war against Saddam Hussein’s Sunni-led regime – men such as General Soleimani – are now credited with riding to the rescue of Baghdad, now under a Shiite-led government. 

Conditions for Iranian help

As a consequence, Iran has seen its currency rise in Iraq. Last week it declared that it would not allow IS within 25 miles of its shared border. Some Iraqis, however, warn that the battle against IS has provided an easy pretext for Tehran to engage more deeply in Iraq.

“We are looking into how to curtail the influence of Iran here,” says Iraqi Vice President Ayad Allawi, a secular Shiite who served as interim prime minister after Saddam Hussein was defeated. “They are supplying weapons to the Iraq government, so of course the influence of Iran is increasing.”

While the precise number of the hundreds of Iranian officers serving in Iraq is unknown, their involvement has been at a high level and, by many accounts, decisive. The highest ranking Iranian casualty so far, Maj. Gen. Hamid Taghavi of the Revolutionary Guard, was killed by IS snipers while taking cover behind an electrical transformer near Samarra just two weeks ago.

Iran’s help, however, is “conditional” in terms of affecting Iraqi politics, “and this will cause a lot of rifts within Iraq,” says Mr. Allawi. “But if you step forward and help a country, without getting involved in the micro-policies, then there is no problem.”

Without naming the countries, Allawi says he was asked to recruit two Arab regional players to also assist Iraq, which eases Iraq’s military dependence on Iran. They are “helping Iraq, but not stepping in. They are supplying capabilities intelligence, some weapons free of charge to Iraq,” he says.

Iran's response speedier

But in this northeastern Iraqi province, largely free now of IS militants, Iran is given much credit for reversing the IS juggernaut.

“It’s a big difference when you are in trouble,” says Col. Saad Mirwah of the Iraqi 5th Division. “One [the US] makes a phone call, and the other [Iran] takes you by the hand and helps you.”

In one instance, only six 120mm mortar shells remained at one frontline position. The leader of the Iran-backed Badr militia called Baghdad and 250 more shells were sent immediately. Another time, troops were in desperate need of ammunition.

“One hour after this call, they got their ammunition. In the bad old days, it would take days, and writing letters,” says Mirwah. “There is a direct line with Iranian advisers. They say, ‘We need this and that,’ and it comes directly.”

The US and the West “did not betray us, but they left us – they hesitated in making a decision,” says Mayor Khadran, echoing a common view in Iraq about Washington’s delay in deciding how to help. When IS was “at the doors of Baghdad, the [US-led] coalition does nothing. Iran, it’s very fast. They opened their doors immediately.”

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