BEIRUT: In early July, hundreds of mourners gathered for the funeral of Kamal Shirkhani in Lavasan, a small town northeast of Tehran. The crowd carried the coffin past posters which showed Shirkhani in the green uniform of the elite Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and identified him as a colonel.Shirkhani did not die in a battle inside Iran. He was killed nearly a hundred miles away from the Iranian border in a mortar attack by the militants of ISIS “while carrying out his mission to defend” a revered Shiite shrine in the city of Samarra, according to a report on Basij Press, a news site affiliated with the Basij paramilitary volunteer force which is overseen by the Revolutionary Guards.
Shirkhani’s death deep inside Iraq shows that Iran has committed boots on the ground to defend Iraqi territory. At least two other members of the Guards have also been killed in Iraq since mid-June, a clear sign that Iran has ramped up its military presence in Iraq to counter the threat of ISIS, an Al-Qaeda offshoot that seized much of northern Iraq in June.
Iraqi security forces largely dissolved in the path of the militant group’s advance on Baghdad, proving that the Shiite-led government could hardly defend itself.
ISIS considers Shiites to be heretics and made a point of filming its fighters gunning down Shiite prisoners as it advanced. Iranian and Iraqi Shiites see it as an existential threat.
Iran, with deep ties both to the Iraqi government and to several Iraqi Shiite militias, stepped in to stop it.
Senior Iranian officials have denied that any Revolutionary Guard fighters or commanders are inside Iraq. But prominent politicians and clerics in Iran have been rattled by the rapid gains of ISIS and the threat it poses, not only to the Iraqi government but to Iran itself.
Iranian President Hassan Rouhani pledged his government’s support to help counter the threat posed by ISIS if the Iraqi government requested it.
In late June, a senior Iranian cleric, Ayatollah Nasser Makarem Shirazi, said that waging jihad to defend all of Iraq, particularly holy shrines that are visited each year by millions of Shiite pilgrims, is “obligatory,” according to a report from the semi-official Fars News agency.
Samarra, a city on the Tigris north of Baghdad where Col. Shirkhani was killed, is site of the first of those major Shiite shrines to land in the path of the Sunni fighters’ advance. Iraqi government forces and Shiite militia swiftly mobilized and have so far succeeded in defending it. The deaths of Shirkhani and two others are proof that Iranians were part of that successful response.
“When the ISIS reached Shiite areas in Iraq, the Revolutionary Guards had forces there who fought them,” said Mohsen Sazegara, a founding member of the Guards who is now a U.S.-based dissident. “A number of them were killed.”
Qassem Soleimani, the head of the the Guards’ Quds Force, recently traveled to Baghdad, according Iranian news sites.
Regional experts believe the Guards have increased the supply of weapons and funds to proxy militant groups inside Iraq in recent weeks.
Critics of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki blame him for excluding Sunnis from government, inflaming sectarian tension and allowing hard-liners like ISIS to cultivate support in Iraq’s Sunni community.
The rise of ISIS was partly Iran’s fault for doing too little to rein in the sectarian impulses of its ally Maliki, said Reza Marashi, a former Iran desk officer at the U.S. State Department who is now the director of research for the National Iranian American Council.
“Iran overplayed its hand. They overreached,” he said. “By seeking to advance its interests with its Iraqi allies at the expense of other foreign and domestic players, look at what’s happened: the Maliki government helped give rise to ISIS.”
Throughout the U.S. occupation of Iraq, which ended in 2011, Washington accused Tehran of funding, arming and training Shiite militant proxy groups behind some of the deadliest attacks against U.S. troops and revenge killings of Sunnis. Those militia groups have re-emerged in recent months to join the fight against Sunni fighters.
A high-level Iraqi security official who asked not to be identified because he was not authorized to speak to the media said Iran had now mobilized up to 20,000 Iraqi militiamen from groups it funded and trained.
The fighters are spread south from Samarra to Baghdad and down into the farming communities south of the capital, the official added.
Several thousand Iraqi fighters were also brought back from Syria where they were helping defend the government of president Bashar Assad, the same official said. Some have now joined units of security forces from the Iraqi Interior Ministry and Defense Ministry. Some of the groups were deployed since the spring with the blessing of Maliki, and put under a military chain of command, as the Iraqi security forces first struggled fighting in western Iraq and in Baghdad’s rural hinterlands.
In addition, there are dozens of members of Lebanon’s Hezbollah in Iraq, sources familiar with the group say. Their presence in Iraq now is a sign of the broader regional dimensions of the conflict which has pitted Shiite Muslims against Sunnis.
Unlike the fighters in Syria, the Hezbollah members in Iraq are battle-hardened veterans leading and supervising operations, sources familiar with the group say. One Hezbollah commander, a veteran of the 2006 war between Hezbollah and Israel named Ibrahim al-Hajj, was killed near Mosul recently.
The presence of the Iranian Guards in Iraq also comes after months of committed military support from the Quds Force in Syria. Senior Iranian officials had denied Guard personnel were there until websites linked to the Guards and Basij began publishing pictures and posting video of the funerals of Iranian fighters killed in Syria.
Still, it was more than a year after the beginning of the Syrian conflict before reports of the first Guardsman killed there began to circulate. In comparison, the three Guardsmen killed in Iraq since mid-June appear to indicate that the Guards have leapt more quickly into the fight in Iraq.
Aside from Shirkhani, the funeral for a second Guardsman killed in Samarra, Shojaat Alamdari Mourjani, was held in Shiraz on July 4. Mourjani, a pilot, “reached martyrdom while defending the shrine in Samarra,” IRNA said.
The report does not give any further details whether Mourjani was killed in ground combat or while flying a combat mission. Pictures published by the Fars News agency show posters pasted on Mourjani’s casket with him wearing the uniform of the Revolutionary Guards and identifying him as a colonel.
The death of a third Guardsman, Ali Reza Moshajari, was reported by the Hengam News site in mid-June. The report, citing a Lebanese news source, included pictures of Moshajari in Revolutionary Guard uniform.
Unlike in Syria, where Iran has staunchly defended Assad, Washington and other Western capitals hope Tehran will use its leverage in Iraq to help push for a more inclusive government in Baghdad to help defuse the crisis.
“The Iranians have seemingly calculated that they cannot preserve their interests in Syria without Bashar Assad. They have not made those same calculations about Maliki,” Karim Sadjadpour, an Iran analyst with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, said in an email.
“But the question is whether there exists a unifying alternative to Maliki, an Iraqi politician who’s both a steadfast Iranian ally and still palatable to Iraqi Sunnis and Kurds.”