As Tehran-backed Shia paramilitary units continue to expand their power and influence in Iraq, Iran has been implicated in the bombing of a Shia shrine in Samarra that triggered a sectarian bloodbath more than a decade ago. While this accusation is nothing new, the significance of the allegation’s resurgence is that it comes from a militant Shia Islamist movement that had long been a recipient of Iranian financing, arming and training.
The astonishing about-turn from one of Iran’s Iraqi allies comes as Baghdad continues to be rocked by the interventionist policies of foreign powers. The United States has been implicated in a deadly attack against Shia militants near the Syrian border, while Turkish politicians have threatened that Ankara may intervene in Iraq, based on treaties that are almost a century old. With Iran continuing to play a dominant role across the full spectrum of Iraqi political, economic, cultural and security affairs, sovereignty continues to elude the war-ravaged country.
Iran linked to Shia shrine bombing
A senior leader of the Sadrist Movement, led by firebrand cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, has directly implicated Iran in the 2006 Askari shrine bombing that triggered a wave of sectarian bloodletting that lasted for years and cost the lives of tens of thousands of Iraqis – mostly Sunni Arabs. The effects of the sectarian slaughter are visible to this day, with continuing examples of torture, murder, sexual violence and other atrocities having their roots in the violence that erupted in the bombing’s aftermath.
Speaking to Dijlah TV on Sunday, Awad al-Awadi said that Iranian operatives had infiltrated Iraq around the time of the Askari bombing, saying “many reports have revealed that there were interests, there were terrorist cells and groups that came in from Iran”. Awadi alleged that Iran had wanted a sectarian war that would pit Iraqis against each other, and ultimately weaken any chance of national reconciliation or future Iraqi sovereignty.
The Askari shrine bombing took place in Samarra, a Sunni Arab-majority city just north of the capital, and was blamed on al-Qaeda extremists – though no group formally took responsibility. Previously, al-Qaeda had been known to claim any attacks against Shia targets in order to boost its propaganda image of being a defender of the Sunnis, but then-leader of al-Qaeda in Iraq, Abu Mosab al-Zarqawi did not make any of his usual grandiose statements claiming responsibility. He was killed later that year.
However, since the attack, many have suspected Iran of ultimately being behind the bombings, with reports from WikiLeaks purporting to show that Tehran was actively supporting al-Qaeda by supplying them with innovative explosives for carrying out suicide bombings. More recently, the US Treasury sanctioned three senior al-Qaeda operatives in 2016, all of whom reside in Iran with Tehran’s knowledge and consent. This has led to claims that Iran had the most to gain by the sectarian conflagration that followed, and was either directly or indirectly behind the attack.
The shocking allegation comes amid Saudi Arabia’s recalibration of its strategy in Iraq, as Riyadh moves closer to long-time pro-Tehran stalwarts. Riyadh has increased its diplomatic presence in Shia holy cities in its northern neighbour, and has paid millions of dollars towards “legitimising” some Shia leaders over others – seemingly in an attempt to tip the scales more in its favour versus its regional foe, Iran.
That the allegation comes from a Sadrist leader is interesting in itself, as the Sadrist’s militia at the time, the Army of the Mahdi – better known as Jaysh al-Mahdi, or JAM, to counterinsurgency experts in the US military – was heavily involved in the sectarian killing spree. The Sadrists targeted Sunnis in Baghdad and other major Iraqi cities, alongside many Shia militants, including the Badr Organisation that controls the interior ministry to this day.
However, following Sadr’s visit to Saudi Arabia last week at the invitation of Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman, the Shia cleric has adopted a more conciliatory stance towards Riyadh, offering to remove anti-Saudi posters in areas under his control. Saudi Arabia also took the step of blessing Sadr’s visit with $10 million to open a Saudi “presence” in the Shia holy city of Najaf, as a way of demonstrating Sadr’s influence and Saudi largesse all at once.
Sadrist statements implicating Iran in one of the most heinous bombings in post-invasion Iraq are therefore likely to be intricately tied to Riyadh’s charm offensive and attempts at prising Shia leaders out of Iran’s grip.
Militia granted further religious authority
Another side-effect of Sadr’s visit to Saudi Arabia was his call last Friday for the Iraqi government to dismantle Shia paramilitary organisations that have been formally absorbed into the armed forces. Sadr called upon Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi to dissolve the Popular Mobilisation Forces, saying that “disciplined members” of the Iran-backed militia should instead be “integrated into the army”.
While the PMF, or Hashd al-Sha’abi in Arabic, is part of the armed forces, it operates as a parallel army to the main national army. The PMF has its own budget, barracks, equipment and most of its recruits come from pro-Iran Shia Islamist militant factions, including some associated directly with Muqtada al-Sadr’s militias.
The PMF is at least nominally under the command of Baghdad, but statements released by the group show that they appear to take their orders from Iranian Major-General Qassem Soleimani, the commander of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps’ elite Quds Force. Despite claiming to have been established by religious decree to fight Islamic State group militants in Iraq, the PMF has detachments inside Syria and are actively helping Syrian President Bashar al-Assad crush the uprising against decades of Ba’athist rule.
Sadr’s call was almost immediately shot down by the government, as Abadi not only flatly refused to dissolve the PMF, but said that the controversial organisation would stay with government and religious backing. Speaking at an event organised by the PMF on Saturday, the Iraqi leader said the PMF would “never be disbanded, and will remain under the command of the state and the religious authorities”.
Abadi’s remarks have raised concerns that the transformation of Iraq into a theocratic rump state under the influence of ayatollahs both in Iraq and in Iran with a religious armed force to enforce the status quo will kill any chance of Iraqis obtaining the democracy promised to them by the United States when it invaded and toppled Saddam Hussein in 2003.
By legitimising and strengthening the PMF and other armed factions, Abadi has shown that continuing torture in Iraqi prisons perpetrated by sectarian elements of the Iraqi armed forces primarily against Sunni Arabs is not an issue that concerns him as he struggles ahead of the general elections due next year. The continuing torture – as well as the transformation of homes in Mosul into headquarters for the Iraqi Hizballah – are leading to fears that political failures will lead to a revival of the circumstances that led to the rise of IS in the first place.
US accused of killing dozens of Shia militants
While Saudi Arabia and Iran increasingly have their say in Iraq, other major powers – including the United States – continue to try to secure their interests in the country.
IS has not been the only target of American airstrikes, as the PMF accused the US of bombing its positions in Iraq, leading to the deaths of dozens of fighters as well as Iranians fighting alongside them.
According to Iraqi military sources, as well as the PMF itself, a pair of American air raids killed no fewer than 60 Shia militants in two separate strikes, all on the Syrian border. At least 20 of the casualties came from one group, the Tehran-leaning Sayyid al-Shuhada Brigades militia, one of the many militias under the overall control of the PMF, and under the command of Iranian military leaders. The Brigades vowed they would retaliate against the US, saying they would “not be silent” after the attack.
US Army Colonel Ryan Dillon, the spokesman for the US-led anti-IS coalition, said on Twitter: “Allegations of #Coalition strikes vs. Popular Mobilization Forces near #Iraq – #Syria border are INACCURATE. No coalition strikes there ATT.”
Although the US has denied any involvement, one of the strikes hit the Iraqi side of the border near al-Tanf, the site of several such incidents in Syria, where a US military outpost is positioned. Washington has been quietly concerned that Iraqi Shia extremists to whom they have provided air support in the fight against IS are being quietly sent across the Iraqi-Syrian border on Iranian orders to threaten US interests in Syria.