In yet another strong suggestion that Iran was readying to expand its direct military involvement in Iraq, President Hassan Rouhani today used his official Twitter account to say Iran will protect Iraq’s Shia shrines.
“Iranian nation will protect Iraq’s holy shrines & they aren't alone. Iraq's Sunnis, Shias & Kurds all ready to defeat terrorism,” Rouhani said. (Twitter/@HassanRouhani, 18 June)
Defending holy Shia shrines has been used by Iran as a pretext for its huge military involvement in Syria. To this day, the Iranian officials refer to their fighting in Syria as operations in defense of Sayyidah Zeinab’s holy shrine in Damascus. (During the funerals for IRGC and QF officers killed in action, they are said to have given their lives defensing the shrine.)
If the Syrian experience is any indication, Rouhani’s reference to defend Iraq’s holy shrines (in Karbala, Najaf, Samarra, and Baghdad) is a signal that Iran is committed to militarily defend the areas from Samarra to Baghdad and further south against ISIL-led insurgents.
Major Shia militant groups, organized, armed and financed by Iran, are already fighting the ISIL in northern and western Baghdad. Iran also has a long border with Iraq, and has been able to easily transfer arms and equipment into the country. The presence of Quds Force Commander Maj. Gen. Qasem Soleimani in Baghdad in the past week, as widely reported by the media, could point to the impending direct military intervention of QF and IRGC forces in Iraq and the need for coordinating their operations with the Iraqi military and the Shia militias.
If Iran were to decide on direct military intervention, it could in short order deploy Basij forces and IRGC special operators into the fighting north of Baghdad. It could also deploy IRGC and Artesh ground forces, normally stationed at the border area with Iraq, if Baghdad were feared to fall. IRGC’s mechanized brigades and Artesh’s armored divisions could be the first units to be deployed. Iran also maintains squadrons of Su-24 and F-4 fighters not far from the border. Iranian drones are also expected to play major intelligence gathering and lethal roles in the combat.
File photo: Iranian President Hassan Rouhani’s Twitter account photo.