— fa (@fa77775682) June 12, 2014
Farnaz Fassihi reports:
Two battalions of the Quds Forces, the overseas branch of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard Corps that has long operated in Iraq, came to the aid of the besieged, Shiite-dominated government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki[.] Combined Iraqi-Iranian forces retook control of 85% of Tikrit, the birthplace of former dictator Saddam Hussein, according to Iraqi and Iranian security sources.
They were helping guard the capital Baghdad and the two Shiite holy cities of Najaf and Karbala, which have been threatened by the Islamic State of Iraq and al-Sham, an al Qaeda offshoot. The Sunni militant group’s lightning offensive has thrown Iraq into its worse turmoil since the sectarian fighting that followed the 2003 U.S.-led invasion. Shiite Iran has also positioned troops along its border with Iraq and promised to bomb rebel forces if they come within 100 kilometers, or 62 miles, of Iran’s border, according to an Iranian army general. In addition, Iran was considering the transfer to Iraq of Iranian troops fighting for the regime in Syria if the initial deployments fail to turn the tide of battle in favor of Mr. Maliki’s government.
The Quds Force is one of the most effective military forces in the Middle East, a far cry from the undisciplined and disorganized Iraqi forces that fled from a much smaller ISIS force in Mosul. One former CIA officer called Quds Force commander Qassem Suleimani “the single most powerful operative in the Middle East today.”
But the escalation from a country many Iraqis still remember fighting a war against could get out of hand, and fast:
Shia Iran’s intervention could infuriate the Sunni Muslims whose allegiance ISIS needs to win in the long run. The internal Iraqi conflict is firmly sectarian: ISIS is a Sunni Islamist group, and the Iraqi government is Shia-run (a majority of Iraqis are Shia). … The perception that the Iraqi government is far too close to Iran is already a significant grievance among Sunnis. That’s part pure sectarianism and part nationalism.
Hayder al-Khoei observes that Iraq’s Shia don’t really have a choice but to accept the help:
[T]here is an ideological difference between the Shia of Iraq and the Shia of Iran. The religious establishment in Iraq and Iran don’t see eye to eye when it comes to the role of the clergy in the state. But in the south there is a sense—it’s not as desperate as in Baghdad—but the Shia in general now recognize the important [role] that the Iranian Revolutionary Guard are going to play in making sure that their cities do not fall to ISIS. They may not like the Iranians, they may be ideologically opposed to the Iranians, but in terms of threat perception, it’s a matter of survival.
ISIS was definitely picking the fight:
The al Qaeda affiliated ISIS considers Shias heretics who deserve to be killed, and is taking forth its campaign to liberate Iraq from what it sees as Shia domination; the group has said it will destroy Shia shrines along the way, stoking fears in Tehran of an attack on Shia Islam’s holiest sites, Najaf and Karbala.
Social media sites have quoted Suleimani saying if ISIS destroys the holy shrines, it will face Iran’s ire. Asked what the manifestation of that rage will be, the former Iranian diplomat laughed nervously. “They [ISIS] know that we’re not kidding around, so we shouldn’t worry about them doing anything stupid. And if they’re foolish enough to even approach the shrines, they have to be prepared for anything.” The diplomat paused. “Battles, attacks, raids, massacre. All the options will be on the table.”
Ali Hashem notes that Iranian involvement might be as much about Syria as it is about Iraq:
What seems clear is that Iran wants to invest in the Iraqi crisis to help end the Syrian war. It hopes to do so by bringing together states fighting each other via proxy in Syria in a unified front in Iraq, given the international consensus on backing the Iraqi fight against ISIS.