When the extremist group known as the Islamic State first took control of terrain in Iraq, many Iraqis said that their neighbours in Iran were the first, and the only, country to come to their aid. But the US also responded. And in fact today there are over 3,000 US troops in the country, mostly classed as “advisers” to the Iraqi army. Some Iraqi politicians believe there are closer to 4,000 due to the US troops that remained in the country after the US officially withdrew in 2011. And there are only an estimated 400 Iranian “advisers” in Iraq.
Iraqis often compare the two countries' influence on their nation as well as what aid they have given during the current security crisis. And opinions remain firmly divided on which country is a better friend to Iraq.
The US military in Iraq mostly focus on training the local military, as well as some irregular militias where fighters come from tribes opposed to the Islamic State, or IS, group. They help train the weakened Iraqi army and provide instruction on how to use US weaponry they have supplied. They also assist in targeting air strikes made by the international US-led coalition fighting the IS group.
They perform a number of different tasks and they hold titles like trainer and coordinator; they enter the country officially, via the Iraqi government and they're given these titles by the Iraqi government.
Meanwhile the Iranian advisers are more visible with their “boots on the ground”, so to speak. Their advisers are given the positions and any status they have by the unofficial Shiite Muslim militias with whom they work, which are formed mostly by volunteers. The Iranians are often seen as being not far from the front lines of battles against the IS group.
And because the Iranians are seen as being more present, while US work is limited to training and logistics, Iran seems to have the upper hand when it comes to public perception.
“The American advisers train the Iraqi army in conventional warfare,” Muwafaq al-Rubaie, a member of the Iraqi Parliament's Security and Defence Committee, told NIQASH. “That is, the mechanisms of one army confronting another army. On the other hand, the Iranian advisers have expertise in counter terrorism tactics and rebellions, as well as urban warfare, and they teach those special kinds of tactics. This is the kind of training the Shiite militias need in this war against the extremists.”
“The Iranians respond directly to the needs and invitations of the militias,” al-Rubaie continued. “Whereas the Americans arrive as a result of their own needs assessments and they decide what kind of training they should offer.”
But opinions inside the parliamentary Committee are also divided – often depending on their political leanings.
“The US mission is equally important, if not more important, than Iran's,” says one senior government source, speaking to NIQASH anonymously because he was not authorised to talk to media. “The US is providing aid and support and training and coordinating airstrikes.”
“There is no comparison between the American and the Iranian advisers in terms of efficiency, experience and the ability to make judgements and develop the right solutions,” argues Hamid al-Mutlaq, a Sunni Muslim politician from Anbar, part of the Iraqiya bloc.
Additionally al-Mutlaq praises the US advisers for treating all Iraqis the same. “The US advisers behave like they come from a country that sees that all Iraqis have the same cause,” he told NIQASH. “Iranians are not like that. They act to support the one part of Iraqi society that shares their own opinions and aspirations.”
“The American advisors are not flexible at all,” al-Rubaie presents the other side of the argument. “They depend on predetermined formulas and they try to impose them on the Iraqis. Whereas the Iranians respond according to the place, the circumstances and the nature of the population.”
“The Iranian advisers have excellent experience in the kinds of battles they are fighting and they’ve had an impact on the ground,” says Fadi al-Shammari, another Shiite Muslim politician. “When the alliance stopped using air strikes in Tikrit that opened a space for the militias to make an impact.”
“There is a difference between those who believe in your project and your goals and those who only care about their own interests and their own goal: dominating the world,” says Rasoul Abu Hasna Assi, a Shiite Muslim member of the State of Law coalition, as he presents a more emotive argument. “The US advisers have their own perspectives but the Iranian advisers have ideological standpoints that do not change. That's why they give the right support and advice.”
Of course besides the two opposing points of view on whose advisers are better, there are also more pragmatic politicians, who say that, at such a sensitive time, Iraq should make good use of both groups – US and Iranian – in order to achieve the best results for the country.
Many opinions currently, whether for or against Iran or the US, seem to be based on political stances. In the end though, it is most likely that developments on the ground – where and when the extremists are expelled from Iraq, and who is seen to be leading the charge – will continue to have the biggest impact.