Deaths in Iraq show two sides of Iran’s role in sectarian conflict – The funeral this week of a Revolutionary Guard commander killed in Iraq showed Iran’s official commitment to its armed forces, while the murkier dimensions of Tehran’s growing role in the region’s sectarian conflict have been highlighted by the death of an Iraqi militia leader with long links to the Islamic republic.
Thousands of Revolutionary Guards gathered in Tehran on Sunday for the funeral of Iranian Brigadier General Hamid Taqavi, who was reportedly killed by a sniper while organizing the defense of the Iraqi city of Samarra against Islamic State (ISIS) militants.
According to Fars News, Iran’s top security official Ali Shamkhani told mourners that if “people like Taqavi do not shed their blood in Samarra, then we would shed our blood [within Iran] in Sistan [-Baluchestan], [East and West] Azerbaijan [provinces], Shiraz and Esfahan [to defend the country]”.
Mehr News reported the funeral was also attended by General Qassem Soleimani, commander of the Quds brigade, the overseas arm of the IRGC (Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps), which has been active in Iraq. The Iranian Labour News Agency relayed condolences from Ali Larijani, the parliamentary speaker, “to the Lord of the Age [the 12th Shia Imam, believed to be in occultation], the Supreme Leader, the honorable Iranian nation, his comrades and respected and patient family members.”
Taqavi, 55, was the most senior Iranian military commander killed in Iraq, where Tehran calls its role “advisory” in assisting the Iraqi army, Kurdish forces and Shia militias against ISIS. While Taqavi’s funeral illustrated the clear official Iranian commitment to its armed forces, the murkier dimensions of Tehran’s growing role in the brutal sectarian conflict engulfing Iraq and Syria were highlighted by the death of Wathiq al-Battat, an Iraqi militant with long links to Iran and leader of one of Iraq’s several Shia militias.
The Mukhtar Army, the Iraqi militia, recently announced its leader Wathiq al-Battat had been killed in Diyala province. Battat had been a player in the shady war between Iraqi Shia militias and the Sunni militants of ISIS.
As general secretary of Hezbollah in Iraq, al-Battat’s militant anti-Sunni sentiments often unnerved Iraq’s mainstream Shia leaders. But he had often boasted of his links to Iran’s IRGC and proclaimed his loyalty to Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran’s supreme leader.
The circumstances of his death on 20 or 21 December mired within the violence in Iraq, are unclear. Within two days of al-Battat’s demise, several Iranian conservative websites claimed Saudi intelligence was involved.
These also claimed Battat was killed by a remote-controlled road-side bomb, although the statement issued by Mukhtar Army had said he was “assassinated by accident” while Al-Quds al-Arabi, the London-based pan-Arab newspaper, quoted an Iraqi government source that Battat had been shot by “unidentified gunmen”.
Battat was a controversial figure who formed the Mukhtar Army in early 2013 warning of the dangers of violent Sunni groups committed to a virulently anti-Shia agenda. Later that year, Nuri al-Maliki, then prime minister, reportedly ordered Battat’s arrest for inciting sectarian conflict but it appears Battat was released from a brief detention early in 2014, perhaps to help take part in militant Sunni groups, including ISIS.
In its latest issue, Ya-Lesarat al-Hossein, the weekly publication of Ansar-e Hezbollah, the militant Iranian group, has published a profile of Battat. Ya-Lesarat al-Hossein assigned him a role in military operations in Iraq against both United States forces and the Mojahedin-e Khalq (MEK), the armed opposition group previously allied to Saddam Hussein. It also backed up past reports that Battat was involved in a mortar attack by Mukhtar Army in November 2013 on a Saudi military base 40km from the eastern Saudi town of Hafar al-Batin near the borders with Iraq and Kuwait.
According to Ya-Lesarat al-Hossein, this attack was a response to the bombing of Iran’s embassy in Lebanon three days earlier on 19 November, claimed by the Abdullah Azzam brigade, a militant Sunni Muslim group linked to al-Qaeda, in which 23 people died, including Iran’s cultural attaché Ebrahim Ansari and five other Iranians. The weekly also claimed Hassan Nasrallah, leader of Lebanese Hezbollah, had the day after the attack promised “Iranian officials” it would not remain unanswered.
Accusations of Saudi involvement with Abdullah Azzam brigade and the Beirut bombing are not new. In December 2013, Nasrallah claimed on television the group was linked to Saudi intelligence. When in the same month, Majid al-Majid, the Saudi leader of Adbullah Azzam brigade died of kidney failure in Lebanese army custody a few days after being arrested, Alaeddin Boroujerdi, chair of the Iranian parliament’s National Security and Foreign Policy Committee, drew attention to Majid’s nationality and called for an investigation.
The website of the Iraqi Kurdish weekly Rudaw also reported Battat’s death, which it said came in clashes with ISIS near the district of Uzem. It dubbed Battat a “firebrand Shia Iraqi cleric and militia leader known for his anti-Kurdish rhetoric and vehemently anti-Sunni diatribes”. Rudaw noted that Battat’s militia had been “fighting ISIS on different fronts, particularly in northern Diyala province, since the jihadis captured Iraq’s [Arab] Sunni provinces last summer.”
The Kurdish website quoted remarks from Battat describing Kirkuk, a city disputed between Iraq’s Kurds and Arabs, as a “red line” and warning that if the Kurds pressed their claim to the city “we will counter the Kurds as we counter ISIS” leading to “a sea of blood between us”.
Ya-Lesarat al-Hossein places Battat’s birth in Maysan province, Iraq, in 1973. It claims he moved to Iran in 1993 as an opponent of Iraq’s then president, Saddam Hussein, and joined the Badr group, the military wing of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (Sciri), which had been established in 1980 in Tehran by Ayatollah Mohammed-Baqir Hakim and had close links with the IRGC. In addition to his military training, Battat attended Tehran university and studied to masters level in a field related in military science.
Ya-Lesarat al-Hossein claims he carried out resistance activities under the command of Hussein Shahrestani, now Iraq’s minister of education. Despite the imprisonment of his father and brother in Iraq, Battat crossed the border near Dehloran, Ilam province, to launch guerrilla attacks on Baathist forces,
Ya-Lesarat al-Hossein continues: in one operation, Battat was arrested along with 270 comrades, but remained unidentified by Baathist officials and later escaped from prison and returned to Iran.
Ya-Lesarat al-Hossein reports that Battat was again arrested in 1998 by Iraqi intelligence when part of a Badr mission to assassinate Ali Hassan al-Majid, known as “Chemical Ali” after his use of chemical weapons against Iraqi Kurds in 1988-90 (and who was executed in 2010). Battat was imprisoned for 20 months, condemned to death three times, but was for unknown reasons pardoned, according to Ya-Lesarat al-Hossein. He resumed guerrilla activities against Saddam Hussein in 2002, and after the fall of Saddam in 2003 returned to Iraq and became a member of the Mahdi Army, the militia of Shia cleric Moqtada al-Sadr.
a-Lesarat al-Hossein reports Battat also travelled to Lebanon before helping establish Iraqi Hezbollah, and in February 2013 was involved in setting up the Mokhtar Army as its militia “to assist the Iraqi government in its fight against terrorist groups”. As commander, he strengthened his links to the IRGC and especially its Quds brigade, responsible for operations outside Iran.
Iran Briefing | News Press Focus on Human Rights Violation by IRGC, Iran Human Rights