Iran's Trojan Army Makes A Splash In Iraq
03 November 2015
By Amir Taheri
An army created by ''others'' cannot be reformed; it must be abolished and
replaced by a new one loyal to the revolution. For almost four decades, that
has been one of the key themes of the regional strategy pursued by the
Khomeinist regime in Tehran. The original theoretician of the strategy was
Mostafa Chamran, a US-educated scientist who helped launch the Harakat al-Mahroumin
(Movement of the Dispossessed) in Lebanon before returning to Iran after the
mullahs had seized power. He was one of the principal founders of the Islamic
Revolutionary Guard Corps and member of a five-man committee that purged
Iran's regular armed forces of ''officers with doubtful loyalties.'' When he
became Defence Minister under Khomeini, Iran's regular armed forces had all
but been dispersed only to be partially reconstituted as a parallel army to
help cope with the Iraqi invasion of 1980 under Saddam Hussein.
In 1979 and part of 1980, Khomeini had hoped that he would be able to
overthrow Saddam Hussein with a repeat of the scenario that had led to the
fall of the Shah in Iran. Soon, however, he realized that Saddam was quite a
different beast, not hesitating to massacre his opponents on a large scale.
It was then that the idea of staging a military coup in Baghdad was brought
up in Tehran. The idea was not new. Under the Shah, Iran had helped
Ba'athists seize power in a coup against President Abdul-Rahman Aref in 1968.
And in 1970, Tehran again tried to organize a coup, this time against the
Ba'athists but failed.
In 1980 the mullahs quickly concluded that they would not be able to seize
power in Baghdad with a military coup. There were few senior Shiite officers
in the Iraqi army and those who were there had no desire to bring the mullahs
So, it was back to Chamran's idea of a parallel army in Iraq.
The plan was facilitated by the fact that over the years Saddam Hussein had
driven over a million Iraqi Shiites from their homes and into Iran. With the
start of the Iran-Iraq war (1980-88), thousands of Iraqi army deserters,
including many officers and NCOs fled to Iran providing a vast pool for
recruitment for the planned parallel army.
The fact that several Arab Shiite tribes live across the Iran-Iraq border
also facilitated the task. Many of the first generation of recruits,
including their future commander Hadi al-Ameri, belonged to the Iranian wing
of tribes that also had a presence in Iraq.
By 1982 the planned parallel army, named Al-Badr Brigade (Faylaqat al-Badr)
after a famous battle won by the Prophet, was ready for deployment. Although
treated as a unit of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, the Badr Brigade
was given an outward Iraqi identity as the military wing of the Supreme
Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq, a clerical-political anti-Saddam
group led by Ayatollah Muhammad Baqer Hakim.
Hakim and Khomeni
Hakim's presence was both an advantage and a threat to Khomeini and his
entourage. It was an advantage because Hakim represented a respected clerical
dynasty with deep historic roots in both Iran and Iraq.
Originally from Shiraz in southern Iran, the Hakim clan had lived in Najaf
for generations and regarded by many Iraqis as natives of Mesopotamia.
Muhammad-Baqer's father, Grand Ayatollah Mohsen hakim Tabataba'i had been the
supreme ''Marja'a al-Taqlid'' (Source of Emulation) and A'alam al-Ulema of
Shiism until his death in 1970. The presence of Muhammad-Baqer at the head of
the SCIRI helped create the impression that the movement had a religious
benediction while retaining its Iraqi identity.
The disadvantage was that Ayatollah Muhammad-Baqer Hakim could not be treated
as a mere ''yes-man'' of the Tehran mullahs. Doggedly he insisted on
retaining an independent identity for Iraqi Shiites especially by making it
clear that as far as he was concerned the center of religious authority was
still in Najaf and symbolized by the Grand Ayatollah Abol-Qassem Mussawi
Kho'i who had succeeded Grad Ayatollah Hakim as Marj'a.
By 1983, Badr was reported to have built up its strength to around 15000 men,
equipped with two dozen tanks captured from the Iraqi army, a number of
armored vehicles and batteries of RPGs and short-range artillery. Commanded
by Iranian officers and NCOs, Badr was deployed in a number of battles,
notably at the Chezabeh Pass and Hamid. By most accounts Badr's performance
was far from satisfactory in military terms and the then IRGC Commander
General Mohsen Reza'i decided to keep them in the background as much as
Badr was now seen as a future parallel army inside Iraq, after Saddam's
overthrow. However, by 1988 it had become clear that Saddam would not be
Badr's Iranian managers decided to recast it as a political force. It was in
that capacity that Badr entered Iraq in 2003 after Saddam's removal by the
''The experience of the Badr Brigade provides an interesting contrast with
that of Hezbollah, another parallel army created by Iran in Lebanon,'' says
Hamid Zomorrodi, a specialist in Iran-controlled militias. ''Hezbollah was
successful because it was totally loyal to Iran's new rulers, regarding
Lebanon as little more than a geographical expression. The Iraqis of Badr,
however, had residual Iraqi nationalist sentiments and found it hard to be
totally devoted to Iran.''
That analysis may miss a key point. The Iraqis believed that since Shiites
form the majority of their country's population they would end up in control
of the country at some point. Lebanese Shiites, however, knew that although
they formed the largest community they could never impose their rule except
by force, and that required the support of a strong foreign power, in this
Tensions Within Badr
Whatever the reason, Tehran never managed to bring Badr under the kind of
tight control that it imposed on the Lebanese Hezbollah. Khomeinist leaders
always feared that Iraqi Shiites might one day even challenge Iran as the
heartland of Shiism. That fear was partly borne out after Saddam's fall when
Badr, returning to Iraq, tried to play its own music for a while.
The result was Tehran's support for alternative parallel armies, notably the
Army of Mahdi (Jaish al-Mahdi) of Muqtada al-Sadr, a junior mullah who
belonged to another Iranian clerical dynasty from the city of Mahallat.
Tehran also created an Iraqi branch of Hezbollah for Arab Shiites and another
for Sunni Kurds.
Experience showed that none of the Iraqi Shiite militias created and financed
by Iran would offer the level of loyalty provided by Lebanese Hezbollah.
That explains the roller-coaster aspect of relations with individuals like
Ammar al-Hakim who now heads the re-named SCIRI and Muqtada al-Sadr among
As many had predicted the SCIRI, now re-packaged as a political party,
separated itself from the Badr Brigade which, after a brief parenthesis of
relative independence from Iran, ended up under tighter Iranian control, this
time through the notorious Quds (Jerusalem) Corps led by General Qassem
Having theoretically disarmed itself, Badr nevertheless kept large caches of
weapons and maintained organizational contact especially in Baghdad and
Basra. The appearance of a political party was sued as a camouflage behind
which the military structure would remain dormant but intact.
By 2011 it seemed that Iran had no need of a Trojan horse in Iraq. The
government led by Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki was fully prepared to recast
Iraq as part of Iran's zone of influence in exchange for Tehran's support for
The eruptive appearance of the Islamic State in Iraq and Levant (ISIL)
changed all that. The ease with which ISIL seized Mosul, extending its Syrian
conquests into Iraq showed that the battle for dominance in the region was
far from over. Maliki and his allies in Tehran realized that the
newly-created Iraqi army trained and equipped by the US and its allies, might
not share their domestic and/or regional goals.
The daily Kayhan, believed to echo the thinking of ''Supreme Guide'' Ali
Khamenei, run an editorial castigating the new Iraqi army as ''a bunch of
cowards and traitors'' because they had allegedly ran away from ISIL in Mosul.
The old Chamran doctrine of ''parallel armies'' was quickly revived. Not only
Iraq but also Syria needed to forget about their regular armies and create
new parallel fighting units. General Hussein Hamadani, killed in Aleppo a few
weeks ago, was sent to Syria for that purpose and, as he claims in his last
interview, managed to create parallel fighting units that ''saved President
Bashar al-Assad from certain demise.''
of ISIL gave the dormant Badr Brigade a new lease of life. In the winter of
2014 General Esmail Qaani, Suleiman's number-two, was sent to Iraq to create
the parallel army.
Marketing the New Force
The initial problem on that route was the presentation of such a force. Iraqi
public opinion would not have accepted a parallel army under direct Iranian
command and control. For its part, Iran did not want to be seen to be in
direct war against ISIL. In fact, as Iranian army commander General Pour
Dastan has said Tehran and ISIL have reached a tacit understanding under
which the terrorist group would not come closer than 40 kilometers from the
Iranian border. In exchange, Iran would not deploy its own forces to dislodge
ISIL from its conquests in Iraq and Syria.
In other words, Iran wanted a proxy war against ISIL. And that required a
local Iraqi horse in the race. That in turn, needed some legitimacy. That was
provided with a number of fatwas from the top clerics of Najaf, notably Grand
Ayatollah Ali-Muhammad Sistani.
Gen. Qaani had the merit of quickly reviving the Badr structures and
appointing new commanders to a new force. The new force, unveiled on 15 June
2014, was named Hashad al-Shaabi, which means ''popular mobilization'' or
''popular crowding''. Care was taken not to include the word ''Islamic'' in
the name of the new parallel army thus avoiding easy association with the
IRGC. However, virtually the entire high command of the Hashad consist of
officers from Badr, including their top commander Hadi Ameri, most of whom
have double Iranian and Iraqi nationality.
Qaani's concern was to market Hashad as a pan-Iraqi force. This is why he
brought together a number of small, often dormant, militia and at times even
non-existent, militias together to form what he claimed was a ''united
front''. The Badr organization itself was cited as one of the component parts
of the new army. The Mahdi Army, supposedly long dissolved, also made a
comeback along with Katayeb Hezbollah al-Iraq.
Other groups included are Katayeb Imam Ali, Katayeb Sayyed al-Shuhada (Lord
of the Martyrs), The Peace Companions, and the Morteza Ali units.
To give the parallel army a non-sectarian appearance, Hashad also includes a
small unit from the esoteric Shiite sect and between 2000 and 3000 Sunni
volunteers, mostly from tribes in north western Iraq.
At the time of writing, Hashad al-Shaabi claims to be a force of over
120,000. Many military analysts, however, believe that figure to be
exaggerated. In any case, in the few battles that Hashad has fought, notably
in Tikrit where it was udder direct Iranian command, the force could not
deploy more than 10,000 men at any given time which, taking into account the
traditional rate of rotation of military formations means a total manpower of
Theoretically, Hashad is under the control of the Iraqi government in the
person of National Security Adviser who has a set on the Cabinet. At one
level, the parallel army is supposed to be under direct command of Prime
Minister Haydar al-Abadi and, through him, the supervision of the Iraqi
However, field commanders are almost all veterans of collaboration with Iran,
notably Abu Mahdi al. Mohandas who leads the Hezbollah unit and Kais al-Khazali
who is in charge of the Asayeb Ahl al-Haq.
Both Tehran and Baghdad try to present Hashad as a temporary force to deal
with ISIL. However, in Islamic history many ''temporary'' forces ended up
lasting a very long time. And that could be a long-term danger for Iraq.
Amir Taheri was born in Ahvaz, southwest Iran, and educated in Tehran, London
and Paris. He was Executive Editor-in-Chief of the daily Kayhan in Iran
(1972-79). In 1980-84, he was Middle East Editor for the Sunday Times. In
1984-92, he served as member of the Executive Board of the International Press
Institute (IPI). Between 1980 and 2004, he was a contributor to the
International Herald Tribune. He has written for the Wall Street Journal, the
New York Post, the New York Times, the London Times, the French magazine
Politique Internationale, and the German weekly Focus. Between 1989 and 2005, he
was editorial writer for the German daily Die Welt. Taheri has published 11
books, some of which have been translated into 20 languages. He has been a
columnist for Asharq Alawsat since 1987. Taheri's latest book "The Persian
Night" is published by Encounter Books in London and New York.