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Analysis: Iran seeks to cool tensions in Iraq

Iran is intervening in Iraq to quell destabilizing internal unrest stirred up by Iranian-backed militias. The actions come as Tehran seeks to preserve its deep influence in the country while also navigating tense negotiations over its nuclear ambitions with the US.

A particularly high-level intervention came last month, hours after an attack on the Iraqi prime minister’s residence that some officials in Baghdad blamed on Iran-backed groups.

One of Tehran’s most senior military commanders, Brigadier General Esmail Ghaani, rushed to Baghdad, according to militia officials, Iraqi politicians close to the militias, Western diplomats and an Iraqi security source familiar with the talks.

Ghaani had a message for pro-Iranian militias refusing to acknowledge initial results of Oct. 10 parliamentary elections in which Shia Muslim cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, a populist candidate opposed to Iranian influence, was the top vote-winner. Ghaani’s message: Accept the result.

Ghaani, the commander in Iran’s elite Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC) who heads its foreign military operations, told the leaders of two militias that petty politics was threatening the power of Iraq’s ruling Shia majority, through which Iran exerts its influence, according to the people familiar with the meeting.

The Nov. 7 armed drone attack on Prime Minister Mustafa al-Kadhimi’s residence marked a dramatic escalation in tensions that had been building over recent months between competing Shia groups. Kadhimi has aligned himself with Sadr. The Fatah parliamentary bloc of factions linked to pro-Tehran militia suffered a major defeat at the election, losing dozens of seats.

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During a terse meeting at the office of a veteran Iran-backed politician in Baghdad, Ghaani berated the two leaders of major Iran-backed militia groups, accusing them of handling the fallout from the election badly. The meeting was described to Reuters by one of the militia officials, who has direct knowledge of the encounter, as well as two politicians closely affiliated with the militias and who were briefed on the meeting. Ghaani, who was accompanied by a small team, told both militia heads to get their supporters and militants under control, the official and two politicians said.

“The Iranians were furious,” the militia official said. He added that one Iranian official asked: “Do you want a Shia civil war?” The official declined to identify the Iranian who made those remarks.

Five other militia officials, two Western diplomats and the Iraqi security official who were briefed on the meeting said Ghaani led the proceedings. These sources all gave similar accounts, saying Ghaani told the Iranian-backed groups to stop fueling unrest in Iraq.

The Iranian government, which condemned the Nov. 7 attack at the time, didn’t respond to requests for comment for this article. The Revolutionary Guards didn’t respond to written questions, and a public relations office for the Guards didn’t respond when contacted by phone for this article.

Reuters also didn’t receive replies to questions addressed to Ghaani sent via the Iranian government and IRGC. Iranian state media have reported that Ghaani visited Iraq following the attack, but provided few details of his activities there.

The Iraqi prime minister’s office did not respond to a request for comment.

The previously unreported account of Ghaani’s mission to Baghdad is one of several interventions by Iran over the past year aimed at preventing spiraling violence between competing Shia groups, which risks undermining Iran’s influence in neighboring Iraq and destabilizing the region. Iran’s militia allies have also been responsible for attacks on American assets in Iraq.

The intra-Shia tensions in Iraq come as an unwelcome distraction for Tehran as it holds indirect talks with Washington about reviving a 2015 nuclear deal. That pact, which was torn up by former US President Donald Trump, gave Iran relief from economic sanctions in return for limiting its nuclear program.

The visit provides a rare insight into the Iraq-related activities of Ghaani, who heads the Quds Force, the arm of the IRGC that controls its allied militias abroad.

He took over the role in January 2020 after the US assassinated his predecessor Qassem Soleimani in a drone strike during a visit to Baghdad. Ghaani’s tenure has been marked by increasing efforts to control the militias. Previously, Iran had a relatively easier time directing its proxies in Iraq, according to the militia officials, Iraqi politicians close to the militias, Western diplomats and an Iraqi security source.

Tehran’s military and political allies in Iraq mostly began as paramilitary groups funded and trained by Iran and later developed political wings. They now operate as heavily-armed hybrid military-political groups that control parts of Iraq’s economy and state institutions. That power has emboldened some militia leaders to act more independently of Tehran, Iraqi officials say. Some militia commanders privately complain that Ghaani lacks the charisma and command of Arabic of his predecessor.

The leaders Ghaani met with were Hadi al-Amiri, a longtime Iranian paramilitary ally, and another political-military leader, Qais al-Khazali, according to the militia official with direct knowledge of the meeting and the two politicians close to militias.

The offices of Amiri and Khazali did not respond to requests for comment. Amiri has publicly condemned the attack. Khazali has blamed unidentified actors.

Iran-backed militias have publicly called the Nov. 7 attack a conspiracy to blacken their name and sow chaos in Iraq. Several Iran-backed militias contacted by Reuters did not respond to requests for comment about the attack.

Tensions have continued to simmer among competing Shia groups in recent weeks. The Iraqi judiciary is expected to ratify election results in coming days, which could fuel resentment. Another important test for Iran’s ability to keep tensions in check could come after Dec. 31, when one militia group, called Kataib Sayyid al-Shuhada, has publicly called on those opposed to a U.S. presence in Iraq to prepare for confrontation. The US military has condemned attacks by Iran-aligned militias against its forces and Washington has said it reserves the right to respond to any deadly attacks.

Jostling for power

Shia groups have dominated Iraqi politics since the US-led invasion of 2003 that toppled Sunni dictator Saddam Hussein. They span an array of Shia parties, most with armed wings, but fall broadly now into two camps: those that are pro-Iran and those that oppose Tehran’s influence in Iraq.

Iraq’s main political parties are currently in talks about forming a coalition. Sadr, the Shia cleric whose bloc won the most parliamentary seats, said he would ally himself with whoever puts Iraq’s national interests, such as providing services for the population, first. That is an indication, Iraqi officials and Western diplomats say, that he may exclude some Iran-backed groups in favor of Kurdish and Sunni parties.

“The Iranians are finding it increasingly difficult to control allies who have their own interests and who won’t be told no for an answer,” said Toby Dodge, a professor at the London School of Economics.

Tensions have flared over the past year or so, in particular around the recent election as groups jostled for power.

Following the Nov. 7 attack, Ghaani also met in Baghdad with the chief of Iraq’s state paramilitary forces, which are dominated by Iranian proxy groups, according to the two politicians close to militias. The politicians said that Ghaani gave the commander, Abdul Aziz al-Mohammedawi, a longtime Iran-backed operative, the same message: Get the militias under control.

Mohammedawi’s office did not respond to questions about the meeting.

Election boycott

Iranian officials have intervened in attempts to calm intra-Shia tensions on other occasions, including in the runup to the elections.

Sadr had in July announced he would boycott the vote, claiming that unspecified enemies were trying to destabilize Iraq and blame it on him.

A representative in Sadr’s political office declined to comment.

“This worried Iran,” said Iraqi politician Abdul Karim al-Moussawi, who is member of the Fatah coalition. “Sadr has always participated in Shia governing alliances, and his refusal to take part in the political process would have shaken things up, caused more instability.”

Iran’s intelligence minister at the time, Mahmoud Alavi, and Revolutionary Guards security chief Hossein Taeb, among other officials, met some of Sadr’s political team in Baghdad. Alavi and Taeb tried to persuade Sadr not to boycott the vote, according to an official in Sadr’s political office.

“Sadr decided to come back to avoid an escalation, after seeking the advice of Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani,” Iraq’s most senior Shia cleric, the official in Sadr’s political office told Reuters. “The Iranian mediation worked.”

Ghaani also visited Baghdad during two other crises in the past year, according to two of the militia officials and the two politicians close to the militia.

An Iraqi militia commander in the Iran camp confirmed that Iranian officials, whom he didn’t identify, had intervened to convince Sadr not to boycott elections.

Reuters didn’t receive responses to requests for comment addressed to Alavi and Taeb sent via the Iranian government and the Revolutionary Guards, respectively.

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US: Bodies of two of three missing kids found in Minnesota lake

The bodies of two young children have been recovered from a Minnesota lake, and searchers are still looking for a third they fear may have been intentionally drowned.

Meanwhile, the father of the children died at a different location hours earlier, and their mother is missing. Names have not been released.

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The chain of events began Friday morning when the father was found dead at a mobile home park in the town of Maplewood, near Minneapolis. Police determined that the woman had left with the children, and a search began.

Maplewood Police Lt. Joe Steiner said the woman’s car was found near Vadnais Lake around 4 p.m. Friday. The shoes of the children were found on the shore.

A search of the lake found one child’s body Friday evening. A second body was found overnight. Searchers from several organizations were busy Saturday looking for the third, as well as the mother.

Authorities believe all three children were under the age of 5.

“There’s nothing more tragic than the loss of young children,” Ramsey County Sheriff Bob Fletcher said at a news conference on Friday. He called the deaths a “likely triple homicide.”

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Foreign firefighters arrive in Greece for summer wildfire season

Several dozen Romanian and Bulgarian firefighters took up their posts in Greece on Saturday, the first members of a European force being deployed to the country to provide backup in case of major wildfires during the summer.

More than 200 firefighters and equipment from Bulgaria, France, Germany, Romania, Norway and Finland will be on standby during the hottest months of July and August in Greece, where a spate of wildfires caused devastation last summer.

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A group of 28 Romanian firefighters with eight vehicles, and 16 firefighters from Bulgaria with four vehicles, were the first to arrive for the two-month mission, financed and coordinated under the European Union’s civil protection mechanism.

“We thank you very much for coming to help us during a difficult summer for our country, and for proving that European solidarity is not just theoretical, it’s real,” Greek Civil Protection Minister Christos Stylianides said on Saturday as he welcomed the members of the Romanian mission in Athens.

“When things get tough, you will be side by side with our Greek firefighters so we can save lives and property.”

The Bulgarian firefighters have been stationed in Larissa, in central Greece.

Last summer’s wildfires ravaged about 300,000 acres (121,000 hectares) of forest and bushland in different parts of Greece as the country experienced its worst heatwave in 30 years.

Following sharp criticism of its response to the fires, the Greek government set up a new civil protection ministry and promised to boost firefighting capacities.

In Greece’s worst wildfire disaster, 102 people were killed when a blaze tore through the seaside town of Mati and nearby areas close to Athens during the summer of 2018.

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One killed, six injured in shootout between migrant groups in Serbia

One migrant was killed and at least six others, including a teenage girl, were injured Saturday in a shootout between migrant groups in Serbia near the Hungarian border, the state-run RTS television reported.

The 16-year-old girl sustained life threatening injuries in the incident that occurred in a forest in the outskirts of Subotica, some 160 kilometers (100 miles) north of Belgrade, where the injured were hospitalized, RTS reported.

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Police, who made no immediate comment, blocked access to the forest where the incident took place, only around a kilometer from the Hungarian border.

Interior Minister Aleksandar Vulin rushed to the scene.

The injured, aged between 20 and 30, have no documents, Subotica mayor Stevan Bakic told local media.

It is not known what triggered the incident, he added.

Local media reported that the shootout occurred between Afghan and Pakistani migrants most likely over human trafficking from the area to European Union member Hungary.

Serbia lies on the so-called Balkans route used by migrants heading towards Western Europe as they flee war and poverty in the Middle East, Asia and Africa.

Although the route is nowhere as busy as it was during Europe’s migrant crisis in 2015, tens of thousands of illegal migrants still cross the region annually.

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