"NY Times":Iran Dominates in Iraq After U.S. ‘Handed the Country Over’
By TIM ARANGO: Walk into almost any market in Iraq and the shelves are filled with goods from Iran — milk، yogurt، chicken. Turn on the television and channel after channel broadcasts programs sympathetic to Iran.
A new building goes up? It is likely that the cement and bricks came from Iran. And when bored young Iraqi men take pills to get high، the illicit drugs are likely to have been smuggled across the porous Iranian border.
And that’s not even the half of it.
Across the country، Iranian-sponsored militias are hard at work establishing a corridor to move men and guns to proxy forces in Syria and Lebanon. And in the halls of power in Baghdad، even the most senior Iraqi cabinet officials have been blessed، or bounced out، by Iran’s leadership.
When the United States invaded Iraq 14 years ago to topple Saddam Hussein، it saw Iraq as a potential cornerstone of a democratic and Western-facing Middle East، and vast amounts of blood and treasure — about 4،500 American lives lost، more than $1 trillion spent — were poured into the cause. From Day 1، Iran saw something else: a chance to make a client state of Iraq، a former enemy against which it fought a war in the 1980s so brutal، with chemical weapons and trench warfare، that historians look to World War I for analogies. If it succeeded، Iraq would never again pose a threat، and it could serve as a jumping-off point to spread Iranian influence around the region.
In that contest، Iran won، and the United States lost.
Over the past three years، Americans have focused on the battle against the Islamic State in Iraq، returning more than 5،000 troops to the country and helping to force the militants out of Iraq’s second-largest city، Mosul. But Iran never lost sight of its mission: to dominate its neighbor so thoroughly that Iraq could never again endanger it militarily، and to use the country to effectively control a corridor from Tehran to the Mediterranean. “Iranian influence is dominant،” said Hoshyar Zebari، who was ousted last year as finance minister because، he said، Iran distrusted his links to the United States. “It is paramount.”
The country’s dominance over Iraq has heightened sectarian tensions around the region، with Sunni states، and American allies، like Saudi Arabia mobilizing to oppose Iranian expansionism. But Iraq is only part of Iran’s expansion project; it has also used soft and hard power to extend its influence in Lebanon، Syria، Yemen and Afghanistan، and throughout the region.
Iran is a Shiite state، and Iraq، a Shiite majority country، was ruled by an elite Sunni minority before the American invasion. The roots of the schism between Sunnis and Shiites، going back almost 1،400 years، lie in differences over the rightful leaders of Islam after the death of the Prophet Muhammad. But these days، it is about geopolitics as much as religion، with the divide expressed by different states that are adversaries، led by Saudi Arabia on one side and Iran on the other.
Iran’s influence in Iraq is not just ascendant، but diverse، projecting into military، political، economic and cultural affairs.
At some border posts in the south، Iraqi sovereignty is an afterthought. Busloads of young militia recruits cross into Iran without so much as a document check. They receive military training and are then flown to Syria، where they fight under the command of Iranian officers in defense of the Syrian president، Bashar al-Assad.
Passing in the other direction، truck drivers pump Iranian products — food، household goods، illicit drugs — into what has become a vital and captive market.
Iran tips the scales to its favor in every area of commerce. In the city of Najaf، it even picks up the trash، after the provincial council there awarded a municipal contract to a private Iranian company. One member of the council، Zuhair al-Jibouri، resorted to a now-common Iraqi aphorism: “We import apples from Iran so we can give them away to Iranian pilgrims.”
Politically، Iran has a large number of allies in Iraq’s Parliament who can help secure its goals. And its influence over the choice of interior minister، through a militia and political group the Iranians built up in the 1980s to oppose Mr. Hussein، has given it substantial control over that ministry and the federal police.
Perhaps most crucial، Parliament passed a law last year that effectively made the constellation of Shiite militias a permanent fixture of Iraq’s security forces. This ensures Iraqi funding for the groups while effectively maintaining Iran’s control over some of the most powerful units.
Now، with new parliamentary elections on the horizon، Shiite militias have begun organizing themselves politically for a contest that could secure even more dominance for Iran over Iraq’s political system.
To gain advantage on the airwaves، new television channels set up with Iranian money and linked to Shiite militias broadcast news coverage portraying Iran as Iraq’s protector and the United States as a devious interloper.
Partly in an effort to contain Iran، the United States has indicated that it will keep troops behind in Iraq after the battle against the Islamic State. American diplomats have worked to emphasize the government security forces’ role in the fighting، and to shore up a prime minister، Haider al-Abadi، who has seemed more open to the United States than to Iran.
But after the United States’ abrupt withdrawal of troops in 2011، American constancy is still in question here — a broad failure of American foreign policy، with responsibility shared across three administrations.
Iran has been playing a deeper game، parlaying extensive religious ties with Iraq’s Shiite majority and a much wider network of local allies، as it makes the case that it is Iraq’s only reliable defender. Iran’s great project in eastern Iraq may not look like much: a 15-mile stretch of dusty road، mostly gravel، through desert and scrub near the border in Diyala Province.
But it is an important new leg of Iran’s path through Iraq to Syria، and what it carries — Shiite militiamen، Iranian delegations، trade goods and military supplies — is its most valuable feature.
It is a piece of what analysts and Iranian officials say is Iran’s most pressing ambition: to exploit the chaos of the region to project influence across Iraq and beyond. Eventually، analysts say، Iran could use the corridor، established on the ground through militias under its control، to ship weapons and supplies to proxies in Syria، where Iran is an important backer of Mr. Assad، and to Lebanon and its ally Hezbollah.
At the border to the east is a new crossing built and secured by Iran. Like the relationship between the two countries، it is lopsided.
The checkpoint’s daily traffic includes up to 200 Iranian trucks، carrying fruit and yogurt، concrete and bricks، into Iraq. In the offices of Iraqi border guards، the candies and soda offered to guests come from Iran.
No loaded trucks go the other way.
“Iraq doesn’t have anything to offer Iran،” Vahid Gachi، the Iranian official in charge of the crossing، said in an interview in his office، as lines of tractor-trailers poured into Iraq. “Except for oil، Iraq relies on Iran for everything.”
The border post is also a critical transit point for Iran’s military leaders to send weapons and other supplies to proxies fighting the Islamic State in Iraq. After the Islamic State، also known as ISIS، ISIL or Daesh، swept across Diyala and neighboring areas in 2014، Iran made clearing the province، a diverse area of Sunnis and Shiites، a priority.
It marshaled a huge force of Shiite militias، many trained in Iran and advised on the ground by Iranian officials. After a quick victory، Iranians and their militia allies set about securing their next interests here: marginalizing the province’s Sunni minority and securing a path to Syria. Iran has fought aggressively to keep its ally Mr. Assad in power in order to retain land access to its most important spinoff in the region، Hezbollah، the military and political force that dominates Lebanon and threatens Israel.
A word from Maj. Gen. Qassim Suleimani، Iran’s powerful spymaster، sent an army of local Iraqi contractors scrambling، lining up trucks and bulldozers to help build the road، free of charge. Militiamen loyal to Iran were ordered to secure the site.
Uday al-Khadran، the Shiite mayor of Khalis District in Diyala، is a member of the Badr Organization، an Iraqi political party and militia established by Tehran in the 1980s to fight against Mr. Hussein during the Iran-Iraq war.
On an afternoon earlier this year، he spread a map across his desk and proudly discussed how he helped build the road، which he said was ordered by General Suleimani، the commander of the Quds Force، the branch of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps responsible for foreign operations. General Suleimani secretly directed Iran’s policy in Iraq after the American invasion in 2003، and was responsible for the deaths of hundreds of American soldiers in attacks carried out by militias under his control.
“I love Qassim Suleimani more than my children،” he said.
Mr. Khadran said the general’s new road would eventually be a shortcut for religious pilgrims from Iran to reach Samarra، Iraq، the location of an important shrine.
But he also acknowledged the route’s greater strategic significance as part of a corridor secured by Iranian proxies that extends across central and northern Iraq. The connecting series of roads skirts the western city of Mosul and stretches on to Tal Afar، an Islamic State-controlled city where Iranian-backed militias and Iranian advisers have set up a base at an airstrip on the outskirts.
“Diyala is the passage to Syria and Lebanon، and this is very important to Iran،” said Ali al-Daini، the Sunni chairman of the provincial council there.
Closer to Syria، Iranian-allied militias moved west of Mosul as the battle against the Islamic State unfolded there in recent months. The militias captured the town of Baaj، and then proceeded to the Syrian border، putting Iran on the cusp of completing its corridor.
Back east، in Diyala، Mr. Daini said he had been powerless to halt what he described as Iran’s dominance in the province.
When Mr. Daini goes to work، he said، he has to walk by posters of Iran’s revolutionary leader، Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini، outside the council building.
Iran’s militias in the province have been accused of widespread sectarian cleansing، pushing Sunnis from their homes to establish Shiite dominance and create a buffer zone on its border. The Islamic State was beaten in Diyala more than two years ago، but thousands of Sunni families still fill squalid camps، unable to return home.
Now، Diyala has become a showcase for how Iran views Shiite ascendancy as critical to its geopolitical goals.
“Iran is smarter than America،” said Nijat al-Taie، a Sunni member of the provincial council and an outspoken critic of Iran، which she calls the instigator of several assassination attempts against her. “They achieved their goals on the ground. America didn’t protect Iraq. They just toppled the regime and handed the country over to Iran.” The lives of General Suleimani and other senior leaders in Tehran were shaped by the prolonged war with Iraq in the 1980s. The conflict left hundreds of thousands dead on both sides، and General Suleimani spent much of the war at the front، swiftly rising in rank as so many officers were killed.
“The Iran-Iraq war was the formative experience for all of Iran’s leaders،” said Ali Vaez، an Iran analyst at the International Crisis Group، a conflict resolution organization. “From Suleimani all the way down. It was their ‘never again’ moment.”
A border dispute over the Shatt al Arab waterway that was a factor in the hostilities has still not been resolved، and the legacy of the war’s brutality has influenced the Iranian government ever since، from its pursuit of nuclear weapons to its policy in Iraq.
“This is a permanent scar in their mind،” said Mowaffak al-Rubaie، a lawmaker and former national security adviser. “They are obsessed with Baathism، Saddam and the Iran-Iraq war.”
More than anything else، analysts say، it is the scarring legacy of that war that has driven Iranian ambitions to dominate Iraq.
Particularly in southern Iraq، where the population is mostly Shiite، signs of Iranian influence are everywhere.
Iranian-backed militias are the defenders of the Shiite shrines in the cities of Najaf and Karbala that drive trade and tourism. In local councils، Iranian-backed political parties have solid majorities، and campaign materials stress relationships with Shiite saints and Iranian clerics. Baghdad’s banks play a role، too، as the financial anchors for Iraqi front companies used by Iran to gain access to dollars that can then finance the country’s broader geopolitical aims، said Entifadh Qanbar، a former aide to the Iraqi politician Ahmad Chalabi، who died in 2015.
For decades، Iran smuggled guns and bomb-making supplies through the vast swamps of southern Iraq. And young men were brought back and forth across the border، from one safe house to another — recruits going to Iran for training، and then back to Iraq to fight. At first the enemy was Mr. Hussein; later، it was the Americans.
Today، agents of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards openly recruit fighters in the Shiite-majority cities of southern Iraq. Buses filled with recruits easily pass border posts that officials say are essentially controlled by Iran — through its proxies on the Iraqi side، and its own border guards on the other.
While Iran has built up militias to fight against the Islamic State in Iraq، it has also mobilized an army of disaffected young Shiite Iraqi men to fight on its behalf in Syria. Iran’s emphasis on defending the Shiite faith has led some here to conclude that its ultimate goal is to bring about an Iranian-style theocracy in Iraq. But there is a persistent sense that it just would not work in Iraq، which has a much larger native Sunni population and tradition، and Iraq’s clerics in Najaf، including Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani، the world’s pre-eminent Shiite spiritual leader، oppose the Iranian system. But Iran is taking steps to translate militia power into political power، much as it did with Hezbollah in Lebanon، and militia leaders have begun political organizing before next year’s parliamentary elections.