Giancarlo Elia Valori
The current presence of Qassem Alì Soleimani, leader of the Al Quds Force of the “Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps” in Iraq is strategically significant.
Certainly, according to the Iranian press, Soleimani was the sole responsible for the destruction of the so-called “Caliphate” of Al Baghdadi, who has recently been eliminated by the US Special Forces, upon probable Turkish pressure.
It is not entirely false: the various Shiite forces from Iran and Iraq have made about 3,000 military operations against Al Baghdadi’s network.
Soleimani also remains the strategic holder of the Lebanese stability – if we can say so – even with the robust presence of Hezbollah in Saad Hariri’s Lebanese government that resigned on October 29 last, in spite of the pressure from a great Christian friend of Iran and Syria, namely Michel Aoun. President of the Lebanon and, as Maronite, certainly not disliked in Iran and Syria.
The idea that the government of Saad Hariri – a friend of the naive West and of the Sunni monarchies of the Gulf, but in fact in the hands of Hezbollah and Amal, two Lebanese Shiite and Iranian movements – could survive the economic crisis that persists even after the 11 million US dollars lent by the Sunni monarchies and the USA, and after the Shiite riots in Beirut and in the South of the country, was completely unfounded.
If the Lebanon collapses, Iran shall strengthen Iraq, and vice versa. It is obvious if we study the political structures of both countries and their role for Israel and the USA.
In Syria, however, the Russian Federation – and not Iran – has won, but it is equally true that the Shiite Republic, also thanks to Qassem Soleimani, is currently able to fight well in Syria, thus maintaining such a level of hostility as to minimize the possibility of retaliation against Iranian forces both in Syria and at home.
Iran has now stably penetrated the informal and official Syrian defence structures and its goal is both to support Hezbollah and the Shiite forces that will replace it, for an attack southwards, namely against Israel, and the definitive exclusion of US forces or US allies from the whole region of the Syria-Iraq axis.
Nevertheless the trump card that counts for the internationalization of the Syrian crisis is still in Russian hands only.
Furthermore, the territorial and operational limitation of the Russian forces in Syria, above all on the Golan Heights, is a further strategic aim of Iran in Syria and Jordan, as well as obviously in Iraq.
Qassem Alì Soleimani, however – often associated to Rahbar, the Supreme Leader Alì Khamenei, in the iconography of the Iranian regime – is considered the military leader closest to the ideas and opinions of Rahbar himself.
He has always been a myth for the Iranian public because he has quickly risen to the top ranks, among Iran’s 13 Major Generals, starting from a humble job as mason in Kirman, Southern Iran, and he is currently the only senior officer of the Armed Forces who speaks directly with the Supreme Leader.
Jointly with some of the most powerful representatives of the Sunni regimes in the Emirates and in the Saudi Kingdom, Soleimani and the Rahbar are organizing a new policy of negotiations with Saudi Arabia and with the whole Sunni world of Egypt and Jordan.
Currently the Al Quds Force led by Soleimani is organizing alone – with at least 12 commercial jet planes never entered into any register – import-export operations in its favour and in favour of the Iranian regime, while millions of Iraqi, Afghan, Pakistani, Azerbaijani and Bahraini refugees in Iran have quickly obtained – through the Al Quds Force – citizenship in the Republic founded by Ayatollah Khomeini.
An Iranian passport is always ready – through Soleimani’s Force – also for many Lebanese, Pakistani (20% of the Pakistani inhabitants are Shiite) and Bahraini citizens.
These are the future strengths of Iran’s destabilization, which uses the Shiite minorities, but not only them.
Soleimani also manages a network of special envoys of the Shiite Republic of Iran throughout the Middle East that report directly to him who then transfers data directly to the Supreme Leader’s Office.
Currently Soleimani’s parallel and military diplomacy is the real axis of the Iranian power projection in the Greater Middle East and reaches as far as India and the West.
As Ayatollah Yatani said about a month ago: “Nowadays, thanks to General Soleimani, we directly control four Arab capitals, namely Beirut, Damascus, Baghdad and Sana’a”.
This is not entirely true, but certainly Soleimani’s network is effective and credible, at least to back the business that supports the Al Quds Brigade and hence also its political operations of infiltration and control of the local political systems.
Certainly Qassem Soleimani’s power is not as relevant as the Iranian propaganda suggests, but it is however true that, in Iraq, the role played by the General and his Al Quds Force is really important and decisive.
Iraq has a border of 1,559 kilometres with Iran and the great country that was Saddam Hussein’s absolute dominion has always hosted a vast Shiite majority, the second in the world after Iran and India. It is also the majority in the country.
In fact, it has just been reported that General Qassem Alì Soleimani has reached Iraq by helicopter and has settled in Baghdad, taking direct control of the Shiite armed forces and their autonomous security services.
Certainly, the most important sign to define this Iranian decision was the attack on the Iranian Consulate in Karbala, the Shiite holy city. The attack launched on November 3 last caused the death of three people.
The demonstrators carried the Iraqi flags and cried out “Karbala is free, Iran out, out!” – one of the many signs of growing intolerance, not only by Sunnis, towards Iran’s strong interference in Iraqi politics and economy.
On November 11 last, Al-Sistani, the Great Shiite Iraqi Ayatollah, gave the Iraqi government a two-week deadline to find out which “undisciplined elements” – as the Iraqi government of Adel Abdul Al Mahdi euphemistically called them – had used snipers to shoot some demonstrators.
Iraqi Prime Minister Mahdi declared three days of mourning for the victims of the demonstrations in Karbala and elsewhere.
The toll was terrible. At least 110 Iraqi citizens were killed in the demonstrations; over 6,000 were injured in demonstrations in Baghdad, Karbala and the South of the country. The death toll includes at least six elements of government security forces.
The US Secretary of State, Mike Pompeo, asked the Iraqi Prime Minister for maximum repression of demonstrations, which, however, are becoming increasingly “harsh”.
Abdul Al Mahdi immediately announced his 13-point plan for reforms, with economic subsidies and free housing for poor people, while a special session of the Iraqi Parliament opened on October 8, with meetings between the government and the Speaker of the Iraqi Council of Representatives, Mohammed Al Haboulsi, and between them and the tribal leaders.
On the same day, the Head of the State Grain Buying Agency in Baghdad, Naeem Al Maksousi, was removed and immediately replaced by Mahdi Elwan.
Russian Foreign Minister Lavrov had arrived in Baghdad as early as October 7 to negotiate with the Iraqi government and curb the protests, which are potentially destructive both for the Russian equilibria in Syria and for the sensitive relationship that the Russian Federation has with Iran, between Iraq, Syria and Afghanistan.
If Iraq becomes viable for all the destabilization operations that currently pass through the Greater Middle East, the Russian successes in Syria, the stability of Assad’s regime in Syria, the penetration of the Sunni jihad from Afghanistan into Iran, and finally the destabilization of Jordan, will become not only possible, but likely.
In this case it is not only a matter of “bread riots”, as those described by Manzoni in his book The Betrothed, but of a political equilibrium between Iraqi ethnic groups, tribes and international relations, which today is inevitably breaking.
However, as mentioned above, on October 30 last a helicopter transported Qassem Alì Soleimani from Baghdad airport to the fortified Green Zone around the Iraqi capital.
In a meeting called by him in the office of the Iraqi Prime Minister, Soleimani also discussed the issue of the protests mounting in the capital city and, above all, in the Shiite Southern Iraq.
Soleimani is now the de facto Prime Minister of the Republic of Iraq, especially with reference to the actions taken to keep the protest under control.
“We in Iran know how to control these situations. They also happened in Iran and we quickly put them under control”. According to many sources, he reportedly said so to the Iraqi political leaders.
Hence a real Iranian coup d’état took place in Iraq, because of or with the pretext of the often bloody riots that occurred particularly in the last fortnight.
But there is also another weakness that has emerged for Iran in a traditionally friendly country like Iraq.
Soleimani and his Brigade were not able to organize Hezbollah and its network in the Lebanon, especially to prevent Saad Hariri – a Lebanese President who is a friend of Iran, but connected to the Saudi banks that hold him in their hands – from resigning together with all his government, including the various, and often powerful, Ministers chosen by Hezbollah itself.
Hariri’s resignation has also made a future technocratic solution for the Lebanese government more likely – a solution that would certainly diminish the grip of the Shiite movement Hezbollah, always trained by the “Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps” a Lebanese movement that was the “right eye” of Imam Khomeini.
If Iran loses also Iraq, its area of influence will be so much reduced as to allow a possible penetration of its own territory.
However, despite the presence of Soleimani, the Iraqi Prime Minister intends to leave power.
Therefore, while a “friendly” government for Iran resigns in the Lebanon, another “friendly” government in Iraq is floundering in a structural crisis. This is the rationale underlying Soleimani’s presence in the Iraqi capital.
It should be noted that on the border between Iran and Iraq, on both sides of the line, the Kurds live and they are a real human shield against massive military penetration from Iran into Iraq.
Sunni and Shiite Arab-Iranian tribes are also straddling the border line, and all the parties involved on the border between the two countries – both with a Shiite majority – have vast reserves of oil at their disposal, which they control almost entirely on their own.
Not to mention the various rivers of the region and, above all, the Shatt-el-Arab.
Let us see, however, who Qassem Alì Soleimani really controls in Iraq.
Firstly, there is the Asaib al-Haq network, as well as the Popular Mobilization Forces (PMF) and finally what remains of the old Al Badr Brigades.
Asaib al-Haq, the “League of the Righteous”, also known as the Khazali Network, heavily operated also during the last war in Syria.
In the Iraqi war, after Saddam Hussein’s fall, it was responsible for at least 6,000 attacks against the US and coalition forces.
At the time, the “Widowers’ House”, where the Sunni jihadist “martyrs” – also those who hit Italy’s military in Nassiriya – passed at the end of their journey towards death, was placed in Syria.
It was from there that a young Sunni “martyr”, of Moroccan origin, who initially worked in a halal butcher shop on the Catalan coast moved to the Mosque of Viale Jenner, in Milan, and finally to Syria, to hit Italy’s soldiers in Camp Mittica, Nassiriya.
We were informed of it by the Spanish Guardia Civil that – as always happens in these cases – had received some DNA found on the body of the “martyr” who killed our soldiers.
Asaib al-Haq, that is also an Iraqi political party, is under direct orders of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and, in any case, is institutionally part of the old network of the Popular Mobilization Forces.
It is estimated that the militants and operatives of the Asaib network and of the Popular Mobilization Forces are currently worth about 15,000 elements, all well-trained, both in Iraq and Iran.
Asaib was born as a splinter group of the old Army of the Mahdi, led and founded by Muqtada al-Sadr (and exactly in the old “rationalist” Sadr City, ferocious clashes between the “rebels” and the Iraqi police forces have taken place very recently).
The working style of the militia group among the population – that is to provide aid to poor people through a “religious welfare”, the same policy of Hezbollah in the Lebanon – is, however, a significant cost for Iran.
Hezbollah in the Lebanon, however, is supported by a system of private funding from rich local Shiites; companies, also Sunni ones, that operate in the areas or with Iranian customers; income from investment and from the usual private donations.
Between 1983 and 1989 Iran has given directly to Hezbollah as many as 450 million US dollars.
Currently – and, however, this does not include operational military support and training for Hezbollah men and women in the Lebanon – there is talk of at least 650 million US dollars a year, from Iran directly to the Southern district of Beirut, where the operational centre of the Lebanese and Shiite “Party of God” is located.
Hezbollah also gets money from the often powerful Shiite minorities outside the Middle East, such as those in West Africa, in the USA and also in the very important area of the “tripartite border” between Paraguay, Argentina and Brazil.
As shown by international agencies’ data, there are also operations that demonstrate how and to what extent the business network of the “Party of God” also deals – for significant amounts – with the illegal trafficking of tobacco and, often, with international drug trafficking.
Currently news about Iran’s financial commitment in Iraq tells us of at least 16 billion US dollars to train, support and organize Shiite militias in Iraq.
Moreover the expansion of the Shiite militias in these areas is recent and will follow Soleimani’s presence in Iraq, like Banquo’s ghost in Shakespeare’s Macbeth.
The Popular Mobilisation Forces are currently a complex organization born in 2014 to fight against the so-called Al Baghdadi’s “Caliphate”.
In September 2019, upon order of the Shiite Iraqi leader, Abu Mahdi Al Muhandis, the network of the Shiite PMF separated from the rest of the Iraqi Armed Forces. This Iran’s political choice stems from a series of air bombings that the PMF bases have suffered in Iraq over the last three months.
The Shiite network has accused Israel, which has neither confirmed nor denied the charge.
But there is no guarantee that this Shiite network is now also opposed to many of the sectarian forces operating on Iraqi soil, between Sunnis and Kurds.
However, the great Shiite military alliance, under the umbrella of the Popular Mobilisation Forces, was born in 2014 from a fatwa of the Great Ayatollah al Sistani that indicated to the young Iraqis the duty to “be part of the security forces” to save the country from the danger of the so-called Al Baghdadi’s “Caliphate”.
Despite various decrees enacted by the Iraqi government, both by Nouri al Maliki and the current President, the structure of the Popular Mobilisation Forces has not given their weapons to the Iraqi army and the PMF have never subjected their chain of command to the Iraqi hierarchy of the Armed Forces.
Recently, the Shiite network in Iraq has increased from the 4,500 armed militants, who had been identified in 2011, to well over 81,000 ones, with a significant increase that has occurred only over the last six months.
The network of the Popular Mobilisation Forces is also useful for Iran to create a second front – more difficult to control – of missile launch against Israel, operated solely from the Iraqi territory.
Also the Hashd al Shaabi movement in the Lebanon was born in 2014, like the new PMF. It is a movement connected – from the very beginning – to the Iraqi brigades of the Popular Mobilisation Forces, as well as to the Badr Brigade and the new Asaib al-Haq network, always linked to the presence of the Brigades of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and hence to Soleimani’s Al Quds Brigade.
Now this network, under Qassem Alì Soleimani’s direct control, currently counts at least 130,000 armed militants.
In other words, Iran is replacing its proxies in Iraq and the Lebanon with a view to avoiding the enemy penetration and staking – with new organizational and military models – a very heavy claim to regimes, between the Lebanon and Iraq, which are obviously at the end of their pathway.
GIANCARLO ELIA VALORI
Honorable de l’Académie des Sciences de l’Institut de France
President of International World Group