General Muhammad Abdullah al-Shahwani, head of Iraq’s intelligence service, released a statement on February 27 accusing the Iranian intelligence services of planning to sabotage the largely Sunni tribal-based Awakening Councils that have formed in Iraq to combat al-Qaeda. The statement was placed on the formal website of the Iraqi intelligence service only days before the visit of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to Baghdad on March 2 and 3 (Azzaman, February 28).
Although Iran has been frequently accused by U.S. officials at every level of destabilizing Iraq, it has rarely been criticized by the Iraqi government, which is formed from a coalition of Shiites and Kurds—the Sunnis withdrew from the cabinet in August 2007. The ties between Iran and the current Iraqi governing parties go back to the years of the Iraq-Iran war in 1980s, when those parties were the exiled opposition to the Sunni regime of Saddam Hussein.
President Ahmadinejad’s visit was boycotted by the Sunni politicians and there were rallies in some Sunni towns denouncing the visit (Azzaman, March 2). The Sunnis have always looked at Shiite Iran as an enemy, but this could not disturb the visit nor the warm welcome that Ahmadinejad received from the Shiite and Kurdish politicians in Baghdad. Hoshyar Zebari, the Iraqi foreign minister, said that the Iranian president came with a defiant message to the United States: “You [America] have your presence [in Iraq] and I have mine” (Al-Sharq al-Awsat, March 11).
The statement of General al-Shahwani—who rarely speaks to the media or releases public statements—indicated that Iraqi intelligence had information that the Iranian intelligence services had deployed operatives all over Iraq to sabotage the Awakening Councils. Al-Shahwani stressed that people should be vigilant and urged them to support the Awakening movement in order to preserve hard-won security improvements. Al-Shahwani is a Sunni and a former officer in Saddam’s military. He left the army in 1990 to enter the U.S.-backed opposition and was heavily involved in a failed coup attempt in 1996. Three of his sons were executed in retribution. He maintains close links with the CIA, which continues to exert tight control over the Mukhabarat, Iraq’s overwhelmingly Sunni and Kurdish secret intelligence service.
Al-Shahwani did not reveal any details about particular operations the Iranians might have participated in, but he called on the Iraqi security services to monitor and pursue any suspect activities. General Abdul Kareem Khalaf, spokesman of the Ministry of the Interior, agreed with al-Shahwani, saying that the head of the intelligence service would not have made his statement without having decisive evidence. A U.S. military source, speaking under condition of anonymity to an Arab newspaper, agreed with General al-Shahwani and added that forces connected to the Iranian al-Quds force had targeted the Awakening movement (Al-Sharq al-Awsat, February 28). Shaykh Ahmad Abu Risha, a prominent Awakening leader from al-Anbar province, also stressed that General al-Shahwani’s statement should be taken seriously. Abu Risha did not rule out that there were Iranian efforts to foil the awakening movement (al-Malaf Press, February 29).
Tamir al-Tamimi—also known as Abu Azzam al-Tamimi—a former member of the Islamic Army insurgent group and head of the Awakening Council of Abu Ghraib, west of Baghdad, commented on the information by making the surprising statement that Iran targets the Awakening movement directly and indirectly through organizations like al-Qaeda. The attacks come by explosive devices, car bombs or suicide attacks (Azzaman, February 28).
It is interesting that a wide range of Sunnis in Iraq believe that Shiite Iran has a link with the Sunni extremist organization of al-Qaeda. Two prominent leaders of Awakening groups in western Baghdad, Abu Elabid and Shujaa al-Adhami, believe that Iran supplies al-Qaeda and the Shiite militias with weapons and money to target their movements (Radiosawa.com, January 11).
Many Sunnis point to individuals like former Badr Brigades commander Abu Mustafa al-Shaibani, who is charged with running a network to smuggle Iranian-made improvised explosive devices (IEDs) and explosively formed projectiles (EFPs) into Iraq. According to a source from the Iraqi Ministry of Defense, al-Shaibani, who was arrested by Coalition forces in 2007, admitted that the Iranian bodies that supported him had given him instructions to widen his network to as many insurgent groups as he could reach. He revealed that in addition to the Shiite militias he had tight relations with insurgent groups affiliated with al-Qaeda (al-Malaf Press, May 22, 2007). U.S. sources allege that al-Shaibani works under the supervision of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards, operating a network whose “first objective is to fight U.S. forces, attacking convoys and killing soldiers. Its second objective is to eliminate Iraqi politicians opposed to Iran's influence” (U.S. Treasury Department, HP-759, January 9).
As part of his reservations about the Awakening Councils, Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki justified his reluctance to recruit Sunni fighters to the government forces by indicating that the banned al-Baath Party and al-Qaeda had ordered their members to infiltrate the Awakening groups (Al-Sharq al-Awsat, January 5). According to what the Sunnis believe about the relation between Iran and al-Qaeda, Iran may be partly behind the infiltrating tactics of al-Qaeda and al-Baath, or the Iranians might be using such infiltrations to serve their strategy of attacking the Awakening movement.
The Awakening movement started in al-Anbar where its organization was based on tribal formations led by tribal leaders. This has made it very hard for infiltration efforts to succeed. In Baghdad the Awakening movement spread in almost every Sunni neighborhood, but here the population is not from one tribe and the tribal bond in general is weaker. This offers more opportunities for infiltration. While the tribal bond protects al-Anbar Awakening from a specific type of infiltration, the continuing rivalries among the Sunni powers (see Terrorism Focus, March 11) might open the way to another type. A leader of one the Awakening groups in al-Anbar expressed his concern about the repeated visits of Shaykh Hamid Farhan al-Hays, a Grand Shaykh and Awakening leader, to Iran (al-Hayat, October 8, 2007). Al-Hays was once seen as a possible successor to the leadership of the Anbar Awakening Council after Shaykh Abdul Sattar Abu Risha was killed by a car bomb in September 2007 (see Terrorism Focus, March 11).
Whether the theory held by some Sunnis that there is a link between Iran and al-Qaeda is right or wrong, any possible evidence and indications should be taken seriously and carefully considered. Iraqi Sunni sources point out that breaking up the Awakening Councils has become a priority for Iranian policy in Iraq. The Awakening groups armed by the U.S. army have become dangerous for the Iranian-backed Shiite militias (thirdpower.org, January 6).
Rows over pay have become frequent between the U.S. army and the Awakening Councils. This is not an encouraging sign as most of these Sunni fighters lost their old jobs as officers in Saddam Hussein’s army and security forces and have not yet been absorbed into the new Iraqi Army. This type of situation would be of great assistance to infiltration efforts by Iranian or other foreign intelligence services.
The Iraqi Sunnis believe that there is coordination between Iranian intelligence and al-Qaeda to attack the Awakening movement in order to reverse its role in the security improvement in Iraq. Iran is not willing to stabilize Iraq in order to keep the United States under pressure and prevent it from putting pressure on Iran (Tamir al-Tamimi to newsabah.com, March 16). With the allies of Tehran dominating the political scene in Iraq, the ambition of some Sunni leaders might push them closer to Iran.