Iran uses new tactic in Iraq, organizes small, loyal militias

Aerial view of stone houses in the Kurdistan region, Iraq. 

Iran’s new tactic in Iraq: to organize small, loyal militia groups 

By Ahmad Al Jabbouri


May 23, 2021  

Iran has made a tactical change in its strategy in Iraq and is now organizing elite and loyal militants in small groups instead of relying on large Shiite militant groups. Members of these special groups received training in drone warfare, surveillance, and online advertising last year under the supervision of the IRGC’s Quds Force. The Fair Observer reported within the past few weeks that these militias have sent concrete warning signals to Turkey through an attack on the Bashiqa base in northern Iraq, escalating from verbal warnings. 

Iraqi military and security sources and Western diplomats have stated that the new small militant groups have been carrying out a series of sophisticated attacks against the United States and its allies in Iraq.

The change of Iranian tactics in Iraq is a consequence of the killing of Qasem Soleimani, commander of the Quds Force. He was a man who had a big influence and close relationship with Iraqi Shiite militias.

When Ismail Qaani, the successor of Qasem Soleimani, became the new commander of the Quds Force, he had much more trouble than Qasem Soleimani. Qaani did not have the influence among Iraqis and control over the situation as Soleimani had. Qaani has a bureaucratic background, writes The Washington Institute, which was a far-cry from the risk-taking of Soleimani’s military exploits. 

Another influential factor in this regard was the protests and demonstrations in various Iraqi cities in 2019 against Iranian influence, which caused large Iraqi militant groups to gradually become isolated in the public sphere. But with the assassination of Qasem Soleimani, the rift between these groups widened and it became difficult for Iran to control them.

IRGC leaders believed that agents in one of the Iraqi militia groups had killed the commander of the Quds Force by exposing Qasem Soleimani. They also witnessed divisions and personal rivalries for power among Shiite militias. These factors made IRGC believe that they can not trust large Shiite militias groups like before. Thus, IRGC started to shift its tactics in Iraq by replacing large militia groups with small and less known militias.

An Iraqi security official has stated that the new groups are directly linked to the IRGC’s Quds Force. They are commanded by this terrorist organization and not by the Iraqis. This tactical change is confirmed by other authorities too; three commanders of large Iranian-backed militant groups, an Iraqi government official, a Western diplomat, and a Western military source.

Iranians seem to have carefully selected individuals and members of these new groups who can carry out attacks and remain in hiding. It is not known who they are.

There are also tactical advantages to relying on small, well-trained militant groups. Such groups will be less permeable and will be able to attack their targets in Iraq more effectively using the latest techniques and technologies that Iran provides, such as drones.

Iraqi security officials have told at least 250 Shiite militants had been sent to Lebanon during 2020, where they received training in drone flying, rocket firing, bombing, and online social media advertising under the supervision of IRGC and Hezbollah.

The new groups are completely secret and they are directly working under the command of IRGC with unknown leaders.

Another militant commander has said that meetings and contacts between them and the Iranians have decreased. They no longer have regular meetings and they have stopped inviting us to Iran.

Attacks by small militant groups are on the rise. For example, The Washington Institute profiled the Saraay Awliya al-Dam, a small Shiite militia with probable ties to Asaib Ahl al-Haq. Saraay Awliya al-Dam is known as a small facade group that carries out bomb attacks on U.S. supply convoys and rocket attacks in the Kurdistan region of Iraq. Awliya al-Dam is a lesser known militia.

Likewise, in April of this year, Erbil airport in the Iraqi Kurdistan region was targeted by a drone. One building was damaged in the attack, but no one was injured. But a rocket attack in February last year around Erbil International Airport near the US military base left at least eight people injured and one dead. The Shiite group Awliya-al Dam claimed responsibility for the rocket attack on Erbil airport.

More than 10 small groups of Shiite militias had been present in Iraq over the past year, attributing various rocket attacks.