Iran's Proxy War Against the United States and Iraq

Executive Summary

  • This Iraq Report summarizes evidence of Iranian involvement in Iraq.
  • Iran, and its proxy Lebanese Hezbollah, have actively supported Shi'a and even Sunni resistance groups since 2003, providing arms and training so as to target Coalition and Iraqi forces and forment sectarian violence.
  • Iranian influence has increased since 2003, spanning from Kurdistan to Basrah; currently, roughly half of all attacks on Coalition forces are now attributed to Shi'a insurgent groups.
  • In response to mounting Iranian intervention, Coalition forces have conducted an increasing number of special and conventional military operations targeting Iranian-backed secret cells.
  • U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Ryan Crocker has conducted tripartite meetings with his Iranian and Iraqi counterparts.
  • Iran has continued to deny that it promotes violence in Iraq.

Topic 1: Background on the Qods Force and its Lebanese Proxy, Hezbollah

  • The Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps-Qods Force (IRGC-QF) was formed by Ayatollah Khomeini in 1979 to protect and export the Iranian Revolution.
  • The current commander of the IRGC-QF, Brigadier General Qassim Sulleimani, serves on the Iranian national security council and answers solely to the Supreme Leader of Iran, Ayatollah Ali Khameini.
  • The Qods Force has played a significant role in funding and training Hezbollah.
  • Since the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003, Iran’s Qods Force and Lebanon’s Hezbollah have worked to support Shi'a insurgents in Iraq, modeling secret cell development and organization on the Hezbollah approach.

Topic 2: Iranian Intervention in Iraq 2003-2005

  • Iranian preparations for Iranian intervention in Iraq date from as early as 2002.
  • Beginning in 2003, Iran has worked to create a vast network to transport and distribute Iranian arms to insurgents across Iraq.
  • Iranian and Hezbollah agents in Iraq began to recruit and train Shi'a militia members, including the Mahdi Army of Muqtada al-Sadr, in 2003.
  • These groups of twenty to sixty Iraqis trained, armed, and funded by Hezbollah and Iran are known as ‘Special Groups’ or ‘secret cells.’
  • With the creation of militia training facilities in Iran in 2005, the number of secret cells in Iraq has grown and they have become much more deadly. Today, there are three of these training camps outside Tehran to train Iraqis for four to six weeks.

Topic 3: Undermining the Government of Iraq: Special Group Activities in 2006

  • In May 2006, the Qods Force and Hezbollah reorganized the Special Groups in Iraq along a Hezbollah-like model. Ali Mussa Daqduq, a Lebanese Hezbollah operative, became the chief advisor in Iraq.
  • By June 2006, Qais Khazali, an Iraqi and former Sadrist, became the head of Special Groups in Iraq.
  • The precise aims of the IRGC-QF remain unclear, but the results are not. They developed a Hezbollah-like secret cell network dependent on Iranian support. They developed an organization that could operate within the umbrella of government institutions to undermine or replace the elected government of Iraq.
  • Special Groups have actively undermined the Maliki government since its inception in May 2006. They have targeted important government figures, Coalition forces, and Iraqi Security Forces.
  • Special Groups have kidnapped or assassinated Iraqi government officials; individuals working for the government (including the November 15, 2006 mass kidnapping of employees from the Ministry of Education); and U.S. soldiers at the Karbala Provincial Joint Coordination Center.
  • Iranian-funded and made explosively-formed projectiles (EFPs), rockets, and mortars flowed into and around Iraq via the Special Groups’ transit routes.
  • Special Groups have escalated attacks on Coalition forces in the Diyala province and the Green Zone in Baghdad.

Topic 4: Secret Cells and Jaysh al-Mahdi in 2007

  • Secret Cells or Special Groups function alongside the Jaysh al-Mahdi (JAM) and other militias.
  • Many of these Special Groups have broken away from JAM militias and do not respond to Muqtada al-Sadr.
  • According to General Petraeus, the primary distinction between JAM and Special Groups is that the latter “have had extra training and selection” by Qods and Hezbollah forces.

Topic 5: U.S. and Iraqi Responses

  • U.S. forces and officials have recognized the dangers of Iranian intervention in Iraq. The American response has been both military and diplomatic.
  • Coalition and Iraqi Forces have taken actions to stem Iranian influence by disrupting Special Groups networks and interdicting the flow of illegal weapons; targeting Secret Cell and rogue JAM leaders; assisting the Iraqi Army in fighting rogue Shi'a militias; and by engaging Iran in direct discussions about security in Iraq.
  • Offensive operations targeting Special Groups in Iraq have increased; this has been made possible by the cooperation of the Maliki government and by surge forces. Coalition and Iraqi forces have been redeployed to disrupt Special Groups’ communication and supply routes east and south of Baghdad.
  • A multi-phase campaign to capture or kill secret cell leaders is also underway across central and southern Iraq and in Baghdad. As a result of such operations, high-value targets such as Ali Mussa Daqduq and the Khazali brothers have been captured.
  • Conventional Iraqi forces, particularly the Eighth Iraqi Army Division, have also engaged in the fight against Special Groups.
  • Finally, U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Ryan Crocker engaged his Iranian counterparts on the issues of Iraqi security on May 29, 2007 and July 24, 2007. The Iranians have continued to deny funding, training, and arming Special Groups.

Possible Implications:

  • Implications of Iranian involvement in Iraq are already visible. Iranian weapons and training have made Special Groups increasingly lethal.
  • Iranian funding, training, and arming of Special Groups will continue to have destabilizing effects on the Iraqi political situation, including the ability of the central government to control the provinces and prospects for negotiation among different Shi'a groups.
  • Coalition and Iraqi forces are now actively targeting Special Groups in order to mitigate the effects of Iranian funding, training, and arming of Special Groups.


  • Despite repeated Iranian denial, there is no doubt that Iran’s Qods Force and its Lebanese proxy, Hezbollah, are directly involved in training, arming, and funding Special Groups in Iraq.
  • Iran’s Qods Force and Hezbollah have sought to destabilize the government of Iraq since its creation, foment sectarian violence, and target Coalition and Iraqi forces.
  • As a result of increasing Iranian financial and material support, the number and quality of attacks by Special Groups have grown, particularly within the last year.
  • Coalition forces have begun a multi-phased and multi-faceted response to combating Iranian influence. The reallocation of resources and efforts aimed at this problem has been made possible by the arrival of surge forces and by the Maliki government.