Iran's role in the Basra battle

Amir Taheri:

IT was bound to happen and may well be happening right now: a war between the Islamic Republic in Iran and the new Iraq.

Much of the media have portrayed the latest battles for Basra, and attempts by armed groups to undermine the recently improved security in Baghdad, as a power struggle among rival Shiite factions.

In this analysis, three Shiite factions - the Fadila (Virtue), the Dawa (The Call) and the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq - that support Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's coalition government are trying to disarm the remnants of the Mahdi Army of the elusive mullah Muqtada Sadr.

But that explanation has several problems.

To start with, it is the regular Iraqi army - not any Shiite armed faction - that is doing the fighting in Basra. To underline that point, Maliki went to Basra to supervise operations personally.

And the kind of fighting witnessed in Basra is different from the usual militia operations.

This is a war of position, with units acting as detachments of a regular army trying to deny the Iraqi government forces control of specific territories. The fighters defying the Iraqi army may be Iraqi irregulars, even nominal members of the Mahdi Army - but those leading them are acting as textbook regular-army commanders.

At least some of the officers in charge of the rebel units may be seconded from Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps as part of a broader plan to control the Basra region, and thus the lifeline of the Iraqi economy.

This wouldn't be the first time that Guard officers and NCOs have fought at the head of native fighters outside Iran. Two years ago, Guard personnel played a crucial role in the war between the Lebanese Hezbollah and Israel. And Guard officers and NCOs led some armed Iraqi groups in operations against Saddam Hussein during the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s.

The type of weapons used in both Basra and Baghdad also suggests at least some outside involvement. The rebels in Basra are using a large number of armored vehicles to move men and materiel around - something no other Shiite militia, and certainly not the Mahdi Army, had ever done. They're also using heavy artillery, mobile rocket launchers and a sophisticated communications system unavailable to militias.

Elements of the Mahdi Army may provide the visible face of the rebellion, but there is no evidence that the militia (supposing it even still exists as an organized force) is the sole star of this show.


One other notable fact: Whoever is running the show on the rebel side has been able to devise a battle plan that included simultaneous attacks along a north-south axis that includes Baghdad, al-Amarah and Basra. No other Iraqi militia group, Shiite or Sunni, has had the resources to stage such a campaign before.

The rebels are trying to retain areas that connect Basra, a vast urban sprawl, to the Shatt al-Arab, an estuary that forms part of the border between Iran and Iraq. If the Iraqi government is kept out of these areas, Iran would control both banks of the strategically vital waterway. Iran has already occupied several islands in the waterway facing Basra, using them as advance observation posts.

Finally, the design of this operation recalls an Iranian plan, drafted in 1983-84, to seize control of Basra and parts of the Shiite-majority areas of southern Iraq.


At a time when US commanders in Iraq, including Gen. David Petraeus, openly accuse Iran of having joined the Iraqi imbroglio, the fate of Basra appears important for another reason.

If there were a war between the United States and the Islamic Republic, one likely early US objective would be seizure of Iranian oilfields. To do that, America and its allies would need advance bases in southern Iraq - the key to which is Basra. Iran, on the other hand, could extend the defensive perimeter of its oilfields by annexing Basra.


Taheri grasps the strategic importance of controlling Basra. His details suggesting Iranian involvement in the resistance to Maliki in Basra are an element that has been omitted from much of the US reporting which has seen the fight as an intra Shia civil war. The Iranian dimension makes the outcome all the more important.

Also attempts to tie the fighting to some failure of the surge are misplaced since the surge did not include Basra and the British actually followed the Democrat plan by withdrawing to a FOB and sending many of their troops home. What Basra is demonstrating is how wrong the Democrat policy would be if applied throughout Iraq.


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