The U.S. military is required to completely withdraw its forces from Iraq no later than December 31, 2011, in accordance with the bilateral U.S.-Iraq Security Agreement signed in December 2008 by outgoing President George W. Bush and Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki. As Iraq struggles to normalize its institutions and international relations, renewed efforts by various insurgent groups have sought to showcase their influence on the backdrop of the U.S. withdrawal. In late July 2011, a report released by the U.S. inspector general for Iraq reconstruction asserted worsening security conditions as compared to the previous year, and a higher risk for U.S. personnel. Indeed, for the entire year of 2010, the U.S. military suffered 22 fatalities due to hostile fire. This year, and only as of July 2011, 31 U.S. soldiers have been killed in Iraq, mainly at the hands of Shi`a militants backed by Iran.

The severe political impasse in Baghdad, an increasingly frustrated population, and an unpopular and ineffective central government are contributing to anti-regime violence in Iraq, especially among Sunni insurgents such as al-Qa`ida in Iraq (AQI) and the Jaysh Rijal al-Tariq al-Naqshabandi (JRTN) movement.[1] These factors, however, are not underlying the revival in Shi`a militancy in the country. Instead, the fundamental principle driving the unstable environment is the heightened level of uncertainty, both on the local and regional stage. The national debate surrounding the continuance of the U.S. presence dominates the local environment, while the regional factor is driven by the uneasiness ushered in by the upheavals of the “Arab Spring.” In the final analysis, both make available a strategic logic for Iran and its Shi`a proxies to exploit the Iraqi scene in hopes of influencing a particular outcome that favors their interests.

Local Level: Uncertainty and the U.S. Presence
The neighboring presence of the U.S. military in Iraq has been central to Iran’s national security interests. Tehran wields significant clout in the security and politics of post-Saddam Iraq. At various periods of the Iraqi insurgency and political process, Iran has intensified its influence and resources in Iraq toward achieving particular objectives. The uncertainty surrounding the U.S. withdrawal has provided a strong underlying rationale for the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) and their surrogate Shi`a militant groups to participate in the debate.

Tehran’s strategic logic at the local level is largely two-pronged: to coerce the United States to withdraw from Iraq by manipulating and raising the costs of remaining, while deterring the Iraqis from accepting an extended U.S. presence by demonstrating their power in creating troubles in Iraq. As one senior Iraqi official said, “They [Iran] show not only that they were instrumental in forcing the U.S. out of Iraq, but to show our prime minister that they still have power and that al-Maliki should take Iran into consideration.”[2] In addition, the Shi`a militants are also campaigning for value and prestige in advancing the perception that their efforts had driven the United States out of Iraq. “Their intent is to bleed U.S. forces on the way out of Iraq for some sort of moral victory, as well as to reestablish coercive control over Iraqi governors in the south by showing off their capacity to carry out these kinds of sophisticated attacks,” said recently-retired U.S. Army Lieutenant General Michael Oates, the former commander of all U.S. forces in southern Iraq.[3]

In June 2011, 14 U.S. soldiers were killed by hostile fire, representing the largest monthly toll for U.S. forces since June 2008. Twelve of those fatalities were attributed to three extremist Shi`a groups: Asaib Ahl al-Haq (AAH), Kataib Hizb Allah (KH), and the Promised Day Brigades (PDB).[4] All three organizations are directly tied to the IRGC Qods Force, led under the direction of the enigmatic Brigadier General Qasem Soleimani.[5] Their attacks and operations are “reflective of Iranian training,” said a U.S. military official under condition of anonymity. “Not amateurs, they’re professional.”[6]

Rocket and mortar attacks on the International Zone and U.S. bases in central and southern Iraq are a frequent occurrence. This year, there were 162 attacks targeting U.S. forces in April, up from 128 in March, and 93 in February.[7] Aside from the frequency of attacks, a concerning trend is that Shi`a militants trained by Iran have now learned how to effectively employ an improvised rocket-assisted mortar (IRAM), which has been responsible for many of the recent U.S. fatalities. “IRAMs are devastating,” said a U.S. military official. “They’re getting more sophisticated, more lethal, and more precise in targeting.”[8]

Among the three Shi`a groups, KH has demonstrated to be the most advanced and sophisticated. “They’re much more experienced,” asserted the same military official. “It’s a learning process. They have better facilities, more money and backing, more experienced fighters, and better recruiting.”[9] On June 6, 2011, KH carried out multiple IRAM attacks on Camp Loyalty in eastern Baghdad that led to the deaths of five U.S. soldiers, the most in a single incident since April 2009.

Another major trend is the noticeable increase of attacks involving a roadside bomb known as an explosively-formed penetrator (EFP), a signature weapon used by Iranian-backed Shi`a insurgents. Of the types of roadside bombs used, EFPs represent a small fraction, but are one of the deadliest weapons in Iraq because of its ability to penetrate even the strongest armored vehicles used by the U.S. military.[10] Most recently, on July 7, 2011, two U.S. soldiers were killed by an EFP-attack just outside Camp Victory near Baghdad International Airport. In the past, one or two EFPs would be used in a single attack; some of the recent attacks, however, have involved as many as 14 EFPs.[11]

The frequency and type of operations by Iranian-sponsored Shi`a insurgents has demonstrated their higher level of confidence and freedom of movement in Baghdad and southern Iraq. This is partially the result of the elevated political influence of the Sadrist Trend in key southern provinces since the March 2010 parliamentary elections. Occupying 40 seats out of the 325-seat Council of Representatives, the Shi`a cleric Moqtada al-Sadr holds more representation in parliament than any individual party in Iraq. His political weight is heavily considered by al-Maliki, as the latter retained the premiership after finally securing al-Sadr’s support during last year’s government formation crisis.[12] The Sadrist Trend has continuously threatened to take drastic measures, including armed resistance against U.S. personnel, in an effort to deter Iraqi politicians from accepting an extended U.S. presence. They have utilized high-profile visits by senior U.S. officials to their advantage by intensifying Iraqi nationalism on the street.[13]

The U.S. military asserts that members of the Iranian Qods Force are entering Iraq and working to re-arm their surrogate Shi`a groups. According to Major General Jeffrey Buchanan, the top U.S. military spokesman in Iraq, the volume of weapons crossing into Iraq from Iran is considered the highest in years.[14] In the last six months, the Iraqi Security Forces (ISF) have uncovered a higher quantity of weapons caches throughout the country, including EFP materiel, roadside bombs, and rockets, some with manufacturing dates as recent as 2010.[15] One discovered stockpile contained 49 prepared EFPs.[16]

A significant amount of the weapons and materiel is believed to be entering Iraq through legal “ports of entry,” including during religious pilgrimages. Others include decades-old smuggling routes that cross into Maysan Province, where the city of Amara serves as a distribution point. In late June 2011, after receiving pressure from the United States, the ISF carried out operations in southern Iraq to confront the Shi`a groups and disrupt their smuggling routes and networks.[17] The operation, however, was diluted in robustness and scope, and was largely superficial in results. Only low-profile Shi`a insurgents were arrested, while operations were suspended as Iraqi forces were diverted toward protecting Shi`a religious pilgrims traveling to Karbala.

The Iraqis had not met the expectations of the U.S. military, which desired simultaneous operations to occur in multiple provinces. “Without multiple locations, you lose a lot of surprise,” said a U.S. military official, “and the bad guys will walk across the border.”[18] The U.S. military cited a lack of both will and capability on the part of Baghdad to confront the Shi`a groups. According to a senior Iraqi military official, however, the decision to diminish the operation was political: “There are some targets, known targets. We have not been allowed to go after them.”[19]

Regional Level: Strategic Implications of the Arab Spring
The upheavals of the Arab Spring and the enduring uncertainty and fervor sweeping across the region have not gone unnoticed in Iraq’s state of affairs. Both Baghdad’s Tahrir Square and Sulaymaniyah’s Saray Square have experienced much activity this year as thousands of Iraqi Arabs and Kurds have taken to the streets, expressing their frustration over endemic corruption and the lack of basic services and political rights.

Although these demonstrations have largely remained in the political sphere, the greater threat to Iraq’s security posed by the Arab Spring is the changing dynamics in the region. For some Arab states, the final form and structure of government will remain to be seen for the foreseeable future. Yet at the regional level, the uncertainty caused by the Arab Spring has had strategic implications on the Middle East and the balance of power, which have provided Tehran a strategic logic to intensify and enhance its influence and interests in Iraq.

Before Egyptian leader Hosni Mubarak’s fall from power due to massive street demonstrations in February 2011, Egypt had aligned with the concerns of Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and the Gulf states regarding Iran’s regional interests and nuclear ambitions. Their commonly held threat perceptions represented an informal Sunni Arab counterbalance to Iran.[20] Yet the recent indications of rapprochement between Cairo and Tehran are causing unease among Arab states about Egypt’s future role in the region.[21] “We are opening a new page,” stated Ambassador Menha Bakhoum, a spokeswoman for the Egyptian Foreign Ministry. “Egypt is resuming its role that was once abdicated.”[22]

The inclination of a future adjustment in Egyptian foreign policy has upset the regional balance of power, and exacerbated tensions and suspicions among rivals. “The cold war is a reality,” said a senior Saudi official in April 2011. “Iran is looking to expand its influence…we don’t have the luxury of sitting back and watching events unfold.”[23] Like Lebanon, Iraq also sits at the crux of a heightened geopolitical rivalry between Saudi Arabia and Iran, where regional competition for power and influence seeps into Iraq’s security, economy, and politics.

Riyadh’s new regional vigilance is of concern. Yet given the strong rhetoric from Iranian leaders and the immense power and influence at risk for Tehran, it is likely that the unrest plaguing Syrian leader Bashar al-Assad is a key force driving Tehran’s strategic calculus to redouble its activities in Iraq. For example, it was reported that Tehran even went all the way to pressure Baghdad to support al-Assad’s regime with $10 billion, masked in the recent and various economic agreements reached between Iraq and Syria.[24]

The Iran-Syria axis is the most enduring alliance in the Middle East.[25] Syrian President Hafiz al-Assad made Syria the first Arab state to recognize the Islamic Republic of Iran and was its only Arab partner throughout the devastating 1980-1988 Iran-Iraq War. While serving as a linchpin for Iran’s reach to the Arab world, including the Palestinian Territories, Syria is also Iran’s bridge to Lebanese Hizb Allah. The consequences of al-Assad succumbing to the same fate as Mubarak could limit Lebanese Hizb Allah’s influence and mobility. In response, reports indicate Tehran is intensifying its efforts to reproduce the Lebanese Hizb Allah model by grooming various Shi`a proxy groups in Iraq to extend its interests in the Arabian Gulf and the greater Middle East.[26] To add to this rationale, Iran has also recognized its failure to seize an effective role in shaping the Shi`a uprisings in Bahrain and counterbalance Saudi Arabia’s political weight and reach in the Arabian Gulf.

In addition, Turkey’s sudden change in behavior toward Syria and al-Assad has alarmed Iran. Ankara is already competing with Tehran over political influence and economic interests in Iraq. The recent opening of a Turkish investment front in Basra is part of Turkey’s intention to build an economic corridor through Iraq that reaches the Arabian Gulf.[27] If the Turks continue to harden their criticism and pressure on al-Assad, “serious issues are sure to follow,” stated an IRGC-based media outlet. “We will be put in the position of having to choose between Turkey and Syria.”[28] Indeed, Tehran has even signaled the possibility of military attacks against Turkish NATO bases should Ankara play a role in the toppling of al-Assad.

Iraqi officials have expressed deep concerns about the developments and uncertainty surrounding Syria. Some senior political and security figures privately believe that the recent surge of attacks against U.S. forces by Iranian-backed Shi`a militants are meant to serve as a warning to President Barack Obama: the risks of continuing to put pressure on al-Assad will be coupled with the loss of American lives in Iraq.[29] Due to the physical presence of 46,000 U.S. military personnel, Iraq serves as a venue for regional actors to exert leverage over the United States.

According to Arab media reports, Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei had asked Iraqi President Jalal Talabani during his visit to Tehran in late June 2011 to convey a position to the United States that “Syria is a red line” for Iran and any outside intervention into Syria’s affairs is unacceptable.[30] In early July 2011, “informed Iraqi sources” cited by the pan-Arab al-Hayat newspaper stated that Iran had relayed a message to the United States via Iraqi mediators that consisted of a possible quid pro quo: Iran allows an extended stay for a smaller U.S. presence in Iraq and works to prevent attacks by the Iranian-backed Shi`a groups; in exchange, Washington would refrain from supporting efforts that seek regime change in Syria.[31] Should the Syrian regime fall, Damascus is unlikely to serve Tehran the critical geopolitical role that has defined the Iran-Syria axis for over three decades.

It is uncertain whether a new security agreement will be arranged between the United States and Iraq that allows for an ongoing U.S. military footprint. Iraq’s highly fragmented and convoluted politics has forced the debate on the presence of U.S. troops to be tied to the politics of various, unrelated, and ongoing disagreements between Iraq’s political blocs that stem from the March 2010 parliamentary elections.[32] Due to the sensitivities involved and the unresolved politics between the major blocs, Iraq’s leaders have, until recently, delayed making a decision on starting the negotiation process.[33] Absent an agreement, by late summer the primary mission for U.S. commanders will be to withdraw the remaining 46,000 soldiers and equipment from the country.

Senior U.S. administration officials have communicated their concerns directly to al-Maliki about Iran’s targeted campaign against U.S. soldiers based in Iraq. In early August 2011, however, outgoing chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, Admiral Michael Mullen, stated that efforts taken by Iraqi security forces and the political leadership to address these Shi`a groups have resulted in a “dramatic reduction” of violence in recent weeks.[34] General Lloyd Austin III, commander of U.S. Forces-Iraq, reiterated the same conclusion.

To be certain, Iraqi security forces have returned to only Maysan Province in a more concerted effort to disrupt smuggling routes and confront the Shi`a militants attacking U.S. forces. Although the rationale behind al-Maliki’s decision to intensify and return to Maysan is unclear, two broad arguments provide a degree of skepticism on the sustainability and continuity of these efforts.

First, Iraq’s forces are not facing al-Sadr and the Jaysh al-Mahdi militia as they previously had in Operation “Charge of the Knights” in the spring of 2008. Rather, the ISF is facing Iran’s surrogates in Iraq and likely the direct policies driven by the IRGC. This is a major distinction between the two Iraqi campaigns against Shi`a militancy. It is unlikely that al-Maliki attains the resolve and fortitude to challenge Brigadier General Qasem Soleimani.

Second, the recent surge of Shi`a insurgent attacks directed against U.S. forces may be more than just a localized campaign to shore up prestige or influence the debate on the U.S. military’s future presence. The United States perhaps overstresses the “prestige motivation” behind the revival of Shi`a militancy, and by default overlooks the broader dynamics playing out in the region as a source of instability in Iraq. Indeed, the strategic implications carried by the Arab Spring—the consequences of developments in Syria, heightened Saudi-Iranian rivalry, and a new assertive Turkish foreign policy in both Iraq and the region—will largely characterize Iraq’s security environment for the foreseeable future.

Ramzy Mardini is a research analyst at the Institute for the Study of War, and an adjunct fellow at the Iraq Institute for Strategic Studies. From 2007-2010, he served as a Middle East analyst at The Jamestown Foundation, and he also previously served on the Iraq desk at the U.S. State Department. Mr. Mardini is the editor of the book, Volatile Landscape: Iraq and its Insurgent Movements (2010).

[1] For more on the JRTN movement, see Michael Knights, “The JRTN Movement and Iraq’s Next Insurgency,” CTC Sentinel 4:7 (2011).

[2] Personal interview, senior Iraqi official, Iraq, July 2011.

[3] Yochi J. Dreazen, “Record Number of U.S. Troops Killed by Iranian Weapons,” National Journal, July 28, 2011.

[4] For a detailed analysis on these three Iranian-backed Shi`a groups, see Michal Harari, “Status Update: Shi’a Militias in Iraq,” Institute for the Study of War, August 16, 2010.

[5] For a biography of Qasem Soleimani, see Ali Alfoneh, “Brigadier General Qassem Suleimani: A Biography,” Middle Eastern Outlook, January 2011; Martin Chulov, “Qassem Suleimani: The Iranian General ‘Secretly Running’ Iraq,” Guardian, July 28, 2011.

[6] Personal interview, U.S. military official, Iraq, July 2011.

[7] Ben Lando, “Iraq Militants Ratchet up Attacks on U.S. Bases, Personnel,” Wall Street Journal, May 24, 2011.

[8] Personal interview, U.S. military official, Iraq, July 2011.

[9] Lando.

[10] Michael Gordon, “Deadliest Bomb in Iraq is Made by Iran, U.S. Says,” New York Times, February 10, 2007.

[11] Dreazen.

[12] For instance, in return for al-Sadr’s backing, al-Maliki reportedly yielded Maysan Province’s governorship, originally held by al-Maliki’s Islamic Da`wa Party, to a candidate from the Sadrist Trend. For details, see “Maysan Council Postpones Governor’s Resignation Until After Id Holidays,” Aswat al-Iraq, November 17, 2010; Ahmad Wahid, “Deal Between the al-Sadr Trend and the al-Maliki Bloc to Change Governors,” al-Hayat, November 13, 2010;  “Ali Dway New Missan Governor,” Aswat al-Iraq, December 29, 2010.

[13] In April 2011, the debate on the U.S. withdrawal made a sudden entrance into Iraq’s political mainstream as outgoing U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates made his last official visit to Iraq. The visit heightened suspicions on the Iraqi street, causing anti-occupation demonstrations to crop up across the state. On April 9, 2011, just after Gates’ departure, tens of thousands of Sadr loyalists flooded the streets in Baghdad to mark the eighth anniversary of the fall of Saddam, demanding an end to the U.S. presence. See “Shiite Sadrist Trend Demonstrate in Baghdad Against Foreign Existence in Iraq,” Aswat al-Iraq, April 9, 2011.

[14] Tim Arango, “Weapons Retrieved in Iraq Point to Iran,” New York Times, July 25, 2011.

[15] Jane Arraf, “US Military Officials in Iraq Warn of Growing Iranian Threat,” Christian Science Monitor, July 27, 2011.

[16] Ibid.

[17] Michael Schmidt, “Iraq Cracks Down on Iran-Backed Shiite Militias,” New York Times, July 1, 2011.

[18] Personal interview, U.S. military official, Iraq, July 2011.

[19] Personal interview, Iraqi military official, Iraq, July 2011.

[20] According to an April 2009 U.S. diplomatic cable acquired by Wikileaks, then director of Egyptian intelligence, Omar Suleiman, had begun to recruit agents in Iraq and Syria to counter Iranian espionage and “sent a clear message to Iran that if they interfere in Egypt, Egypt will interfere in Iran.” Suleiman stated that Egypt was confronting both Lebanese Hizb Allah and Iran, and indicated that Iran was attempting to smuggle arms to Hamas in Gaza via Egyptian territory, posing a “serious threat to Egyptian national security,” according to the cable. In April 2010, an Egyptian court convicted more than two dozen individuals for plotting attacks in Egypt on behalf of Lebanese Hizb Allah. See Heather Langan, “Egypt Sought Spies in Iraq, Syria to Check Iran Espionage, Wikileaks Show,” Bloomberg, November 30, 2010.

[21] Iran had cut off diplomatic relations with Egypt in 1980 after Egyptian President Anwar al-Sadat made peace with Israel and offered asylum to the shah of Iran. Relations further worsened when Egypt backed Iraq during the 1980-1988 Iran-Iraq War. Iran responded by changing the name of a street in Tehran to Khaled Islambouli, in honor of al-Sadat’s assassin. Just a week after Mubarak fell in February 2011, however, Egypt allowed two Iranian warships to pass through the Suez Canal. In March 2011, then newly appointed Egyptian Foreign Minister Nabil al-Arabi told reporters that Egypt was now “turning over a new leaf with all countries, including Iran.” See “Iran Welcomes Egypt’s Call to Mend Relations,” Voice of America, March 30, 2011.

[22] David D. Kirkpatrick, “In Shift, Egypt Warms to Iran and Hamas, Israel’s Foes,” New York Times, April 28, 2011.

[23] Bill Spindle and Margaret Coker, “The New Cold War,” Wall Street Journal, April 16, 2011; Karin Laub, “Iran Courts Post-Mubarak Egypt, Worrying Allies,” Associated Press, July 26, 2011.

[24] Ma’ad Fayad, “Iran Orders Iraqi Allies to Support Syrian Regime Financially,” Asharq al-Awsat, August 3, 2011; Hemin Baban Rahim, “Allegations of Iraq Funding Syria Shakes Political Establishment,” Rudaw, August 10, 2011; Michael Schmidt and Yasir Ghazi, “Iraqi Leader Backs Syria, with a Nudge from Iran,” New York Times, August 12, 2011.

[25] Jubin M. Goodarzi, Syria and Iran: Diplomatic Alliance and Power Politics in the Middle East (New York/London: I.B. Tauris & Co., 2009).

[26] “Tehran Grooms Mahdi Army,” Intelligence Online, June 2, 2011; “Iran Grooms Mehdi Army for Gulf Ops,” United Press International, June 9, 2011.

[27] “Turkey Uses Basra Launchpad for Financial Assault on the South,” Kurdistan News Agency, July 2, 2011.

[28] The statement can be read at Also see Reza Kahlili, “Iran Warns Turkey to Butt Out of Syria,” Fox News, July 25, 2011.

[29] Personal interviews, Iraqi officials, Iraq, July 2011.

[30] The al-Ahram article is cited in a report from Middle East Berlin, located at

[31] “Iran Reportedly Sets Conditions to Agree Extension of U.S. Forces’ Stay in Iraq,” al-Hayat, July 5, 2011. According to the report, a second demand issued by Iran involved the exclusion of Lebanese Hizb Allah members from UN indictments regarding the 2005 assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri.

[32] In December 2010, Iraq’s bickering parties brokered a power-sharing agreement that concluded a nine-month government formation crisis, which began after no single bloc received a majority of votes in the March 2010 general elections to form the next government. Under the so-called “national partnership government,” all of Iraq’s political blocs were brought together to form a governing coalition. Since then, however, little confidence remains about the value and stability of an all-inclusive government in Iraq.

[33] On August 2, 2011, Iraq’s political leaders finally asked al-Maliki’s government to begin negotiations with the United States that could allow some U.S. troops to remain after this year to train Iraqi security forces. See Lara Jakes, “Iraq to Negotiate Continued US Troop Presence,” Associated Press, August 2, 2011.

[34] Thom Shanker, “U.S. Military Claims Success Curbing Attacks in Iraq with Iranian Weapons,” New York Times, August 1, 2011.

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