Documents detail Iranian training of Iraqi militias

L.A. Cicero Iran Felter

Army terrorism expert Col. Joseph Felter, a National Security Affairs Fellow at the Hoover Institution, presented once-secret intelligence documents that summarize 28 interrogations of detainees captured in Iraq and provide detailed descriptions of Iranian-sponsored paramilitary training and aid to militants in Iraq.

Courtesy of Joseph Felter Iran Felter Fishman

Joseph Felter and Brian Fishman in Iraq. They co-authored the report “Iranian Strategy in Iraq: Politics and ‘Other Means.’”

An Army terrorism expert now at Stanford's Hoover Institution has released 85 pages of once-secret documents that provide an insider's account of how Iranian military and Lebanese Hezbollah forces train Iraqi Shiite militants to kill U.S. soldiers.

The documents—summaries of interviews with captured Iraqi fighters—were chilling to read, said Col. Joseph Felter, a Special Forces veteran and former director of the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point. His Army colleagues have been "on the receiving end of this," he said.

Iran has denied the training, but Felter says the newly declassified interviews help make a compelling case. The documents are the most detailed descriptions yet released of Iranian sponsored paramilitary training and provision of military aid to militants in Iraq. The intelligence documents summarize 28 interrogations of detainees captured in Iraq from mid-2007 to mid-2008, and describe the sometimes tedious path followed by the trainees. The recruits often complained about the poor quality of the training, while instructors from the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps' Quds Force admonished some of them for being slackers.

One detainee described crossing the border into Iran legally with other Iraqi militants, then taking a taxi-bus to the city of Ahvaz, where they stayed in a house near a traffic circle that featured a large statute of a teapot in its center. After one night in Ahvaz, they flew to Tehran and were driven directly to a training camp, where they arrived after midnight.

After a day of rest, they began their training with pistols on a soccer field. "The trainees were not happy with the training, and were constantly joking around and slacking off," according to one of the intelligence reports. By day 19 of one Iraqi militant's account of his training, the Iranian instructors had advanced to the teaching of tactics for attacking U.S. convoys with roadside bombs.

After another 10 days of training, the Iraqi militia members learned a new trick: a roadside bomb left in an obvious place, with no attempt at concealment. The Iranian cadres explained that a visible bomb still serves a tactical purpose. It can prevent enemy forces from entering an area or divert them to a different route, where an ambush waits.

The Iraqis and their Iranian hosts sometimes squabbled, even though both groups are Shiite Muslims with a shared enemy—the U.S. soldiers in Iraq. The Arab Iraqis complained that their Persian instructors looked down on them and treated them without respect.

There were better relations, apparently, when the instructors were Lebanese members of Hezbollah who provided training to Iraqi militants, both in Iran and Lebanon.

One detainee told his U.S. interrogator that he began his journey to participate in Iranian-sponsored paramilitary training by falsely telling his family he was leaving to guard religious shrines in Iraq. Instead he rendezvoused with 11 other trainees in a garage in Amarah, a city in southeastern Iraq near the Iranian border. Some then traveled to Iran by bus, while others were taken in a rowboat through the marshes near the border, then flown to Tehran.

Select trainees were eventually flown from Tehran to Damascus, Syria, and driven from the airport to the Lebanese border in curtained vehicles. On a hill across the border, two dark-colored Chevrolet Suburbans awaited them.

"They switched vehicles twice. The roads had a lot of curves, and several of detainee's associates got car sick and vomited in the vehicles,'' according to one of the declassified intelligence documents.

But despite Iran's provision of lethal aid, Felter said the Iranian government's overarching goal is to gain political, not military, influence in neighboring Iraq. Political ties between the two countries are extensive, ranging from personal relationships to historical Shiite connections, charity aid, economic development and commercial trade.

"They have influence in the Iraqi political system to a remarkable degree. They've really got their hooks in," said Felter, who received his PhD in political science from Stanford and is now a National Security Affairs Fellow at Hoover.

American leaders increasingly recognize the importance of responding to Iran's strategy with a strategy of their own, based on a detailed, nuanced understanding of a complicated situation rather than the latest roadside bombing, Felter said during a recent talk at Stanford's Center for International Security and Cooperation.

Iraqi militants who have participated in Iranian-sponsored training insist that it is designed primarily to evict Coalition Forces from Iraq—not to stoke the kind of sectarian warfare that rocked Iraq in 2006 and early 2007, according to Felter.

Felter and his co-author, Brian Fishman, quote from an interrogation with a member of an Iranian-trained network known as the Special Group Criminals: "Iran does not care about the fight between Shi'a and al-Qaeda. Iran just wants to force Coalition Forces out of Iraq because Iran is afraid Coalition Forces will use Iraq as a base for an attack in the future. Iran is training people to fight Coalition Forces, not al-Qaeda."

Felter notes that in 2004, when Najaf seemed headed toward chaos, "Iran intervened and took strong steps to ensure the continued viability of the electoral political process." Iran would like to see a weakly federated Iraq strong enough to prevent chaos or a Sunni power grab while still giving Iranian leaders a chance to have serious influence in the Shiite-dominated and oil rich region of southern Iraq, Felter said.

Importantly, Felter points out, "The United States and Iran are not engaged in a zero-sum game in Iraq. Both countries want greater stability and democracy, as well as a reduction of U.S. troops. Neither Washington nor Tehran wants a hostile relationship that could lead to unnecessary conflict." These mutual interests are shared by Iraqis as well and, according to Felter, could provide groundwork for potential future cooperation and for compromises in which all sides' interests are better met than with the status quo.

Perhaps paradoxically, Iran may have less influence in Iraq once U.S. forces have gone home, Felter said. At that point, Iraqi Shiite militants will no longer share a common enemy with Iran, and Iraqi nationalism may rise to the forefront, thus exacerbating age-old rifts and animosities between Iraqi Arabs and their Persian neighbors.

Felter's paper, "Iranian Strategy in Iraq: Politics and 'Other Means,'" can be found along with the supporting intelligence documents at