Iran’s most prominent military leader has in recent times met Iraqi militias in Baghdad and said them to “prepare for proxy war”, has learned.
Two senior intelligence sources said that Qassem Suleimani, leader of Iran’s powerful Quds force, summoned the militias under Tehran’s influence three weeks ago, among a heightened state of tension in the area. The move to mobilize Iran’s regional allies is understood to have triggered fears in the US that Washington’s interests in the Middle East are going through a pressing threat. The UK raised its threat levels for British troops in Iraq on Thursday.
While Suleimani has met regularly with heads of Iraq’s myriad Shia groups over the last five years, the nature and tone of this gathering were different. “It wasn’t quite a call to arms, but it wasn’t far off,” one source said.
Leaders of all the militia groups that fall under the umbrella of Iraq’s Popular Mobilisation Units (PMUs) were in attendance at the meeting called by Suleimani, the intelligence sources claimed. One senior figure who learned about the meeting had since satisfied with western officials to express concerns.
As the head of the elite Quds force, Suleimani plays an important role in the militias’ strategic directions and leading operations. Over the past fifteen years, he has been Iran’s most powerful powerbroker in Iraq and Syria, leading Tehran’s efforts to consolidate its presence in both countries and trying to reshape the region in its favor.
The US has become more and more vocal about the activities of Iranian proxies in the Middle East. Donald Trump this month named Palestinian Islamic Jihad, a western-designated terrorist group financed by Iran and Lebanon’s Hezbollah, as partly responsible for a barrage of rockets fired from Gaza into Israel.
On Sunday, four ships – two of them Saudi oil tankers – were reportedly sabotaged off the UAE coast. The following day, drones released by Iranian-allied rebels in Yemen attacked 2 Saudi pipelines. Saudi state media on Thursday called for “surgical strikes” against Iranian focuses on in response and its senior officials have said Washington that they expect it to act in its interests.
Adding to concerns is a belief that a convoy of Iranian-supplied missiles was last week successfully transported across Iraq’s Anbar province into Syria, where it was shifted safely to Damascus, regional diplomats told. The transfer managed to evade US and Israeli intelligence, despite the latter’s interdiction of lots of alleged missile deliveries in the last three years that have been used into various Syrian airbases through an airbridge.
Fears of an Iranian-run land corridor emerging from the fight against the Islamic State, in which Shia militia groups played a prominent role, have been central to concerns that postwar Iraq and Syria could be subverted by regional manoeuvrings.
That Iran could emerge emboldened from the Isis fight has dominated latest discussions among Donald Trump’s uber-hawks , the national security adviser , John Bolton , and the secretary of state , Mike Pompeo , both of whom are central to an escalating US sanctions programme and Washington’s abandonment of an international nuclear deal authorized by Tehran and the former US president Barack Obama .
The Trump administration has stayed wary of the Iraqi militias. Although they jointly directed the fight against Isis, such groups were integrated into the Iraqi state structure, and have drawn increasing comparisons with Iran’s Revolutionary Guards Corps. While they include some Sunni, Christian and Yazidi units, they are dominated by Shia groups, the most effective of whom enjoy the direct patronage of Iran.
The British foreign secretary, Jeremy Hunt, appeared to align the UK on Thursday with US claims that Tehran’s threat posture had changed. “We share the same assessment of the heightened risk posed by Iran,” he said on Twitter. “As always we work closely with the USA .”
Earlier this week, a British general challenged the Trump administration’s claims that an imminent threat had come from Iran, creating a rare public schism between the 2countries whose alliance has at times been tested by the erratic nature of Trump’s regional policy.
The UK, though, is known to have been central to the recent concerns being raised, and efforts to de-escalate a crisis in which the US has imposed a “maximum pressure” strategy on Iran and Iranian officials have vowed to defend their interests, in the face of hardline sanctions and an oil blockade that is biting deep into Tehran’s coffers.
Tehran’s ambassador to the United Nations, Majid Takht-e Ravanchi, told US broadcaster NPR that Iran was not keen on escalating regional tensions but had the “right to defend ourselves.”