Iran developed ‘vast influence’ in Iraq, spy agency leaks say

Unprecedented leak of 700 pages of intelligence cables shows Tehran’s efforts to embed itself in Iraq, including paying locals working for the US to switch sides

A poster of Iraq Parliament Speaker Mohammed al-Halbousi, right, and Iran President Hassan Rouhani, left, hang on a building near Tahrir Square, during ongoing protests in Baghdad, Iraq, November 6, 2019. (AP Photo/Hadi Mizban)
A poster of Iraq Parliament Speaker Mohammed al-Halbousi, right, and Iran President Hassan Rouhani, left, hang on a building near Tahrir Square, during ongoing protests in Baghdad, Iraq, November 6, 2019. (AP Photo/Hadi Mizban)

Hundreds of leaked Iranian intelligence reports reveal the depth of Tehran’s influence in neighboring, now protest-torn Iraq, The New York Times and The Intercept reported Monday.

The US newspaper and the online news publication said they had verified around 700 pages of reports written mainly in 2014 and 2015 by Iran’s Ministry of Intelligence and Security, and sent to The Intercept anonymously.

The documents “offer a detailed portrait of just how aggressively Tehran has worked to embed itself into Iraqi affairs, and of the unique role of General (Qasem) Soleimani,” wrote the outlets.

A protester hits a poster showing the leader of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard’s foreign wing, or Quds Force, Gen. Qassim Soleimani with a shoe during ongoing anti-government protests in Baghdad, Iraq, November 3, 2019. (AP Photo)

Soleimani, the head of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps’ elite Quds Force, is Tehran’s point man on Iraq and travels there frequently during times of political turmoil.

Amid Iraq’s largest and deadliest protests in decades, Soleimani has chaired meetings in Baghdad and Najaf in recent weeks to persuade political parties to close ranks around Iraqi premier Adel Abdel Mahdi, sources have told AFP.

In one of the Iranian leaks, Abdel Mahdi is described as having had a “special relationship” with Tehran when he was Iraq’s oil minister in 2014.

The prime minister’s office told AFP it had “no comment” for the time being on the report.

The source of the documents, who had declined to meet with a reporter in person, had said they wanted to “let the world know what Iran is doing in my country Iraq.”

Iraq has close but complicated ties with both Iran, its large eastern neighbor, and the United States, which opposes Tehran’s influence in the region.

The reports also named former prime ministers Haider al-Abadi and Ibrahim al-Jafari as well as former speaker of parliament Salim al-Jabouri as politicians with close Iran links.

According to the New York Times, Tehran was able to gain much more access following the withdrawal of US troops from Iraq in 2011, which it said left Iraqi assets of the Central Intelligence Agency “jobless and destitute.”

They then turned to Iran, offering information on the CIA’s operations in Iraq in exchange for money, the report said.

In this photo released by official website of the Office of the Iranian Presidency, Iraqi Prime Minister Adel Abdel Mahdi, left, and Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, meet at the Saadabad Palace in Tehran, Iran, Monday, July 22, 2019. (Iranian Presidency Office via AP)

In one incident, an Iraqi military intelligence officer had traveled from Baghdad to meet with an Iranian intelligence official in Iraq’s holy city of Karbala.

During the three-hour meeting, the Iraqi official said his boss, Lieutenant General Hatem al-Maksusi, had told him to pass on the message to Iran that “all of the Iraqi Army’s intelligence — consider it yours.”

Al-Maksusi had also offered to give Iran information about a covert system established by the US to eavesdrop on Iraqi phones, run by the premier’s office and military intelligence, the reports said.

But Iraq’s Sunni population began to resent the Iranian influence, and accused Tehran-backed Shiite militias of carrying out bloody and devastating attacks against them against them in the name of fighting Islamic State jihadists.

A particularly brutal operation in Jurf al-Sakhar in late 2014 saw homes and crops destroyed and tens of thousands of local residents displaced.

“As a result of these operations… families have been driven away, most of their houses have been destroyed by military forces and the rest will be destroyed. In some places, the palm orchards have been uprooted to be burned to prevent the terrorists from taking shelter among the trees. The people’s livestock (cows and sheep) have been scattered and are grazing without their owners.”

“In all the areas where [Iranian forces] go into action, the Sunnis flee, abandoning their homes and property, and prefer to live in tents as refugees or reside in camps,” one of the Jurf al-Sakhar cables noted.

Iraqi Shiite militiamen fire their weapons during clashes with militants from the Islamic State group, in Jurf al-Sakhar, Sept. 28, 2014. (photo credit: AP, File)

In Baghdad, intelligence officials began to worry that Iran’s gains against IS were being squandered by the growing anti-Tehran sentiment, specifically among Sunnis.

In one cable that was marked as “not to be shared with Iran,” Iraqi officials blamed Soleimani for the growing resentment, and criticized him for his posting pictures on social media showing off the Quds Forces’s leading role in various Iraqi military campaigns.

The Times said that cable “made it obvious” that Iran controlled the Shiite militias in Iraq, leaving it vulnerable to its enemies, namely the US and Israel.

“This policy of Iran in Iraq… has allowed the Americans to return to Iraq with greater legitimacy,” the cable said. “And groups and individuals who had been fighting against the Americans among the Sunnis are now wishing that not only America, but even Israel, would enter Iraq and save Iraq from Iran’s clutches.”

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