Iran is using teams of hit squads in Iraq to silence critics of Iranian attempts to meddle in Iraq’s new government, according to British security officials.
The hit squads are said to have been deployed on the orders of Qassem Suleimani, the commander of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards’ elite Quds Force, with the aim of intimidating Iraqi opponents of Iranian interference in Iraqi politics.
The hit squads were deployed after Iraqi general election in May, when Iranian attempts to establish a controlling influence over the new Iraqi government were stymied by the failure of Tehran-backed candidates to win sufficient votes.
During the election campaign Iran backed former Iraqi prime minister Nuri al-Maliki, whose close association with Tehran was a major factor in his removal from office.
The Iranians also hedged their bets by supporting another pro-Iran candidate, Hadi al-Amiri, although neither candidate mustered enough votes to form a government.
British security officials, who are providing military support and training for the Iraqi armed forces, say that Iran responded by sending a number of Quds Force hit squads to Iraq to silence Iraqi critics of Iranian attempts to determine Iraq’s political destiny.
The most high-profile victim to date of the Iranian hit squads was Adel Shaker El-Tamimi – a close ally of former Iraqi prime minister Haider al-Abadi – who was assassinated by the Quds force in September.
A Shia Muslim and joint Canadian-Iraqi national, Tamimi, 46, was involved in attempts in Baghdad to heal the schism between the country’s Shia and Sunni communities, and also worked as a low-key envoy to restore Iraq’s relations with neighbouring Arab states, such as Jordan and Saudi Arabia.
Security sources say the Iranian assassins have also targeted opponents across Iraq’s political spectrum.
Other victims of Iran’s hit squads include Shawki al-Haddad, a close ally of the Shia firebrand Muqtada Al-Sadr, a former protege of Tehran who recently has adopted a more nationalist agenda.
Haddad was murdered in July after accusing the Iranians of election fraud. Meanwhile Rady al-Tai, an advisor to Grand Ayatollah Ali Al-Sistani, Iraq’s leading Shia cleric, was the subject of a failed assassination attempt in August after he called for the reduction of Iranian influence in the new government.
"Iran in intensifying its campaign of intimidation against the Iraqi government by using assassination squads to silence critics of Tehran," a senior British security official told The Daily Telegraph.
"This is a blatant attempt to thwart efforts by the new Iraqi government to end Iran’s meddling in Iraq."
Iran, the region’s acknowledged Shia superpower, is committed to increasing its influence over the Shia populations of Arab countries, and neighbouring Iraq, where the majority of the population are Shia, has long been a target of Tehran’s ruling Islamic regime.
Iran is currently in the process of trying to construct a Shia crescent through the Arab heartlands of Iraq and Syria by linking up with tradtional Shia communities, an ambitious programme that Iran hopes will give it an arc of influence reaching from Tehran to the eastern shores of the Mediterranean.
The failure of Iran-backed candidates in May’s elections to win a majority has resulted in Prime Minister Abdul Mahdi, a pragmatist, taking control with a mandate to curb Iran’s interference.
General Mark Carleton-Smith, the head of the Army, told the Daily Telegraph in a recent interview that he regarded Iran’s “malign influence” as one of the major threats facing the world today.
Apart from sending hit squads to Iraq, security officials say the Quds Force is also seeking to consolidate its military position in the country.
Using established Shia militias such as Kataib Hizbollah, the Iranians are smuggling weapons into Iraq for use against US and other Western targets.
In September the militia was accused of launching two attacks against US targets – the US Embassy in Baghdad and the US consulate in Basra.