BEIRUT // Hundreds of mourners gathered for the funeral of Kamal Shirkhani in Lavasan, a small town north-east of Tehran. The crowd carried the coffin past posters which showed Shirkhani in the green uniform of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps and identified him as a colonel.
Shirkhani did not die in a battle inside Iran. He was killed more than 100 kilometres away from the Iranian border in a mortar attack by the militants of the Islamic State “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 militia which is overseen by the Revolutionary Guards.
Shirkhani’s death early last month 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 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 fighters from the Islamic State, an Al Qaeda offshoot that seized much of northern Iraq since June.
Iraqi security forces largely dissolved in the path of the Islamic State’s advance on Baghdad, proving that the Shiite-led government could hardly defend itself.
The Islamic State considers Shiites to be heretics deserving of death, and made a point of filming its fighters gunning down Shiite prisoners as it advanced.
Iran, with deep ties both to the Iraqi government and to a number of Iraqi Shiite militias, stepped in to stop it.
Senior Iranian officials have denied that any Revolutionary Guard fighters or commanders are inside Iraq. But there’s no doubt that prominent politicians and clerics in Iran have been rattled by the rapid gains of the Islamic State 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 the Islamic State if the Iraqi government requested it.
In late June, a senior Iranian cleric, Ayatollah Nasser Makarem Shirazi, said in a statement that waging jihad to defend all of Iraq, particularly holy shrines that are visited each year by millions of Shiite pilgrims, is “obligatory”.
Samarra, a city on the Tigris north of Baghdad where Col Shirkhani was killed, is the site of the first of those major Shiite shrines to land in the path of the Islamic State fighters’ advance. Iraqi government forces and Shiite militia swiftly mobilised and have so far succeeded in defending it. The deaths of Shirkhani and two others is proof that Iranians were part of that successful response.
“When the Islamic State reached Shiite areas in Iraq, the Revolutionary Guards had forces there who fought them,” said Mohsen Sazegara, a founding member of the Revolutionary Guards who is now a US-based dissident. “A number of them were killed.”
Qassem Soleimani, the head of the external operations branch of the Guards known as the Quds Force, recently travelled to Baghdad, according to reports from a number of Iranian news sites.
Regional experts believe the Revolutionary Guards have increased the supply of weapons and funds to proxy militant groups inside Iraq in recent weeks.
A high-level Iraqi security official said Iran had now mobilised 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.
Several thousand Iraqi fighters were also brought back from Syria where they were helping defend the government of president Bashar Al Assad, the same official said. Some have now joined units of security forces from the Iraqi Ministry of Interior and Ministry of Defence. Some of the groups were deployed since the spring with the blessing of Mr Al 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.
Aside from Shirkhani, the funeral for a second Guardsman killed in Samarra, Shojaat Alamdari Mourjani, was held in the southern city of Shiraz on July 4th. Mourjani, a pilot, “reached martyrdom while defending the shrine in Samarra,” according to a report from the Islamic Republic News Agency (IRNA).
The IRNA report does not give any further details whether Mourjani was killed in ground combat or while flying a combat mission.
Only a couple of days before Mourjani’s funeral, the London-based International Institute for Strategic Studies published a report that Iran had delivered a handful of SU-25 ground attack aircraft to Iraq. The report notes that the only SU-25 aircraft owned by Iran are operated by the IRGC and that, “these aircraft were likely delivered to Iraq by Iranian pilots” but it is unclear who would be operating the aircraft once in Iraq.
The death of a third Guardsman, Ali Reza Moshajari, was reported by the Hengam News site in mid-June. The report, included pictures of Moshajari in Revolutionary Guard uniform and noted that he had been killed in Kerbala while defending holy sites there, south-west of Baghdad.