They're the Quds Force officers who tracked and killed Iraqis working with the U.S.-led coalition, hunted those deemed hostile to Iranian influence through a council of assassins, and smuggled the spies, money, weapons, and secrets into Iraq that sowed chaos across the country during the American occupation.
Qassem Soleimani first gained the attention of Western media through his role in instigating a campaign of covert violence against the U.S. in Iraq which cost the lives of over 600 American troops. But underneath the now famous Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps icon, other officers managed the war that first made Soleimani notorious.
For a period during the mid-2000s, one of those officers was Brigadier General Ahmed Foruzandeh, who rose to command the Ramazan Corps, part of the Guard’s elite Quds Force, after cutting his teeth in the unit running guerrilla warfare operations during the Iran-Iraq war.
“Although Qassem Soleimani was the architect of that broader strategy, it was his lesser known lieutenants who ran and oversaw the operations,” Dr. Afshon Ostovar, a scholar at the Naval Postgraduate School, said. “Foruzandeh was one of the top Quds Force operatives in the field in Iraq, yet his name was hardly known at the time.”
Iranian and American media alike have treated Foruzandeh’s old boss, the former Quds Force commander Soleimani, with something approaching hagiography. In profiles and obituaries, he’s cast as a legendary “shadow commander” possessed of superhuman abilities and cunning, a judgment not entirely supported by Soleimani’s colleagues.
By contrast, declassified documents obtained by The Daily Beast and other sources paint a more prosaic picture of Foruzandeh. Like a number of Quds Force personnel, Foruzandeh’s career in Iraq drew on nothing more mystical than relationships and experience.
His first brush with the world of covert operations in the Iran-Iraq war met with middling success and the guerrilla warfare effort he supported barely moved the needle in the conflict. But by the time the U.S. showed up on Iran’s doorstep, Foruzandeh had been carrying out guerrilla warfare and covert operations across the Iran-Iraq border for nearly 20 years with some of the same people and organizations.
“They clearly have, one, home court advantage. Two, these guys have been doing special operations in the region for their entire adult life and they’re veterans of the brutal Iran-Iraq war,” Doug Wise, a former CIA officer and station chief in Baghdad, told The Daily Beast of Iranian Quds Force officers who worked on Iraq. “These guys are worthy adversaries. They’re not 10 feet tall. They have human and physical limitations but extraordinary experience in conducting the operations that they were required to conduct,” Wise said.
“Big picture,” Col. Donald Bacon, then the chief of special operations and intelligence information for the coalition, said in a 2007 press conference, “the Ramazan Corps is the organization that does operations here in Iraq to—they use it to—they're the ones who transit in the weapons, the funding and help coordinate Iraqi militia extremists into Iran to get them training and then get them back into Iraq.”
Ramazan was the Quds Force unit in charge of causing chaos in Iraq and, at least for a time, Foruzandeh was its commander. The unit, which dated back to the Iran-Iraq war, divided its forces between a handful of sub-commands along the Iraqi border. Foruzandeh had worked in Fajr command, based in Ahwaz, Iran, which handled operations in Basra and southern Iraq, working his way up to deputy commander of Ramazan.
By 2007, as violence in Iraq peaked, intelligence reports surveyed Iranian covert operations in Iraq as the U.S. turned its attention away from the Sunni jihadist insurgency and towards the violence instigated by Iran and its proxies.
The documents include raw reporting marked as "not finally evaluated intelligence" from sources whose motivations are described as "based on favorable experiences with U.S. forces and desire to rid Iraq of destructive foreign influences" but they track broadly with what U.S. officials have said about Ramazan Corps and its personnel.
Taken together, they show a sprawling campaign of covert violence with Foruzandeh and the Ramazan Corps in charge.
The documents spend considerable space detailing the elaborate process by which the Iranian-overseen “Golden Death Squad” targeted, approved, and carried out assassinations against Iraqis they viewed as obstacles.
The unit, the report wrote, “consists of Iranian intelligence leadership that provide guidance and funding to Iraqis that are recruited from [Jaish al-Mahdi], Badr Corps, the Al-Fadilah Party, and other Shia Iraqi parties and militias that conduct assassination operations against former Ba'ath party members, Iraqis that are working with the [Coalition Forces], and Iraqis that are not supporting Iranian influence in Iraq.”
Iranian officers shuttled Iraqi members of the assassination teams to Ahwaz, Iran, the headquarters of Ramazan’s Fajr command, for training. The 10-day long course included instruction from Iranian officers on “information collection to support the targeting of coalition forces in Iraq, assassinations, and the use of indirect fire systems such as Katyusha rockets and mortars.” Iran also trained its proxies in the use of “what is described as very sophisticated explosives that can penetrate [Coalition Forces'] armor,” an apparent reference to the notorious Iranian-made explosively formed projectiles which killed and maimed hundreds of American troops.
When it came time to decide who would be killed, Quds Force officers set up a process for adjudicating assassination targets, giving Iraqi allies a role in the process, according to the documents. “Iraqis that are agents of the Iranians are allowed to produce lists of Iraqis that are to be assassinated,” it notes. “Most of these Iraqis that are authorized to make decisions regarding who is to be killed by the Golden Death Squad are members of the Iraqi government and security forces.” Meetings of the hit squad reportedly took place at the Basra governor’s office where members of Basra police intelligence would "routinely attend.”
Iranian intelligence officers also nominated their own targets for assassination. Their names were handed to a member of the Iranian-backed Badr militia. The Iranian officer who passed the targets along—his name is redacted in the report—is described as “a Persian Iranian that is fluent in Iraqi Arabic and has a southern Iraqi accent due to the years he has spent in Iraq."
Those slated for assassination included not just former Baathists but Iraqis who worked with the U.S.-backed coalition. The documents recount how one Quds Force officer, assigned to Ramazan’s Fajr command in southern Iraq, ran an Iraqi agent who photographed coalition informants for the IRGC. The unnamed Quds Force officer then “passe[d] the pictures to Iraqis that he tasks and funds to kill those identified by [redacted's] reporting and pictures."
In at least one case, Foruzandeh reportedly intervened to help one of his militia allies after coalition officials arrested them.
Mehdi Abdmehd al-Khalisi allegedly ran the Muntada al-Wilaya militia, a small, Iranian-backed Shiite militia implicated in the murder of a number of former Baathist officials and an attack on coalition troops. When coalition officials arrested al-Khalisi in 2005, senior Iraqi officials began pressuring the coalition to release him.
A classified cable leaked by WikiLeaks show that informants told the U.S. that al-Khalisi had been communicating with Foruzandeh about attacks on British forces in Iraq’s Maysan governorate via encrypted telegrams as early as 2003. After his arrest, the cable says that an informant of “unknown reliability” reported that Foruzandeh “has authorized an expenditure of up to $500,000 for operations to secure Mr. al-Khalisi's release, and that senior [Iraqi Transitional Government] officials have received telephone calls from the Brigadier requesting assistance.”
Along with the assassinations came Iranian weapons and trainers. Reporting by the Long War Journal first sketched out Ramazan’s “rat lines” in Iraq and documents obtained by The Daily Beast note that the unit oversaw a “complex smuggling apparatus from Ahwaz, Iran into Iraq" that included "weapons, information, financial support, and Iranian intelligence officers." The money, guns, and Iranian personnel began their journey in Ahwaz and were handed off to smugglers at the border with Iraq.
Iranian intelligence officers would vet smugglers for loyalty and to ensure that they had a "pre-existing relationship with the [Iraqi border police] because of their tribal relationship"—a relationship that nonetheless "usually involves a pre-arranged bribe." Once across the border, smugglers toting money, guns, and Iranian personnel were “typically met by a reception element that represents a Shia militia group that the operation support package was built for."
In the ports of southern Iraq, Ramazan agents smuggled weapons via hidden compartments in the fuel tanks of fishing boats, according to the documents.
As violent as Foruzandeh’s tenure in occupation-era Iraq war was, he wasn’t entirely averse to covert diplomacy. Ahmed Chalabi, the exiled Iraqi lobbyist who helped push the Bush administration to war in Iraq, met with Foruzandeh in the spring of 2004, according to a 2008 biography of Chalabi by journalist and former Daily Beast senior correspondent Aram Roston. At the time, Chalabi had transitioned from pro-war lobbyist to an Iraqi member of parliament and was seeking to accommodate himself to Iran’s newfound influence in Iranian politics.
Some time after the meeting, the U.S. learned that Iranian intelligence had suddenly realized American spies were reading their cable traffic and had broken their codes. A few months later, American intelligence officials told The New York Times they believed Chalabi had walked into the Iranian embassy in Baghdad and blown the operation to the station chief of Iranian intelligence at the embassy. Chalabi denied any involvement in the leak but the incident led the Bush administration to end its relationship with him.
Foruzandeh’s father worked for the Abadan oil company and when he left the company, his family of 13 sons and daughters moved to Khorramshahr, just across the border from Basra in Iraq. His son Ahmed was an early supporter of Iran’s Islamic Revolution, a stance which earned him a stint in prison at university—thanks to the ruling Shah’s secret police—and the revolutionary bonafides that came with it when the Shah’s government was ousted.
In the early days of the Islamic Revolution, Foruzandeh worked with the IRGC to identify and arrest Arab dissidents in Khorramshahr opposed to the new government. His knowledge of the area, proven commitment to the regime, and background in underground work made him a natural fit for intelligence when the Iran-Iraq war started.
“After Iraq's invasion, he was the intelligence chief of the Khorramshahr unit that later played a key role in re-taking the city from the Baathists in 1982,” Amir Toumaj, an Iran researcher who’s written extensively on the Quds Force, explained of Foruzandeh.
“His biography states that he started developing a relationship with Hassan Bagheri around the time of Khorramshahr's fall and sent him reports,” Toumaj says. Bagheri, the founder of the Islamic Republic’s intelligence service, was killed during the war but went on to become one of Iran’s most famous “martyrs.” His brother, Mohammad, is now Iran’s highest-ranking military officer and it was those kinds of connections that would help pave Foruzandeh’s ascent to the highest ranks of the IRGC.
Later in the war, Foruzandeh left his position in Khorramshahr’s 22nd Badr Brigade and joined the Ramazan Corps. The unit was designed to work with dissident groups in Iraq and carry out guerrilla operations behind enemy lines while the otherwise static style of trench warfare that characterized the Iran-Iraq conflict played out.
At Ramazan’s Fajr headquarters, where Foruzandeh first worked, the unit carried out operations with Iraqi Shiite groups like the Badr Brigade, a group of exiled dissidents and former prisoners of war. The militia was originally “conceived by the Iranians as an adjunct to the IRGC-QF Ramazan Corps,” according to a 2005 State Department cable, and drew support from their political arm, the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq.
During the Iran-Iraq war, radio broadcasts from Tehran hailed operations by the “Ramazan Headquarters” which claimed assassination attempts with “Iraqi mujahidin” on Saddam’s interior minister Samir al-Shaykhali in Baghdad, the “revolutionary execution” of a Ba’ath Party official in Baghdad’s Mansur neighborhood, and having set fire to one of Saddam’s Baghdad palaces "used for pleasure by Ba'ath party officials and senior officers of that regime.”
Ramazan’s Fajr headquarters and the Badr Brigade didn’t do much to change the tide of the war. It ended in a bloody stalemate in 1988, more of exhaustion than because of guerrilla daring. One of the Ramazan Corps’s most valuable relationships actually lay farther north with Kurdish forces from the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan. The group carried out strikes deep into Iraqi Kurdish territory with Ramazan’s backing, including a 1986 raid on Iraqi oil infrastructure in Kirkuk (later memorialized in a cheesy Iranian action flick, Kirkuk Operation).
But the relationships forged by Ramazan with Iraqi Shia militants would prove useful to both the Revolutionary Guards and Iran years down the road when groups like Badr took on an important role in Iraqi politics and security.
When the war ended, both Ramazan Corps and Foruzandeh remained focused on Iraq, particularly during the Shia uprising against Saddam at the end of the Persian Gulf War. One Iranian news account put Foruzandeh in charge of working with Iranian-backed militias to support the uprising “in order to speed up the support of the Iraqi Mujahideen” because his unit, Ramazan’s Fajr headquarters, was closest to the revolt in Basra.
There’s not much evidence about how Foruzandeh spent his time in the interim between America’s first two wars in Iraq. The most evidence available is a fragmentary report from Saddam-era intelligence documents captured by the U.S. after the war that shows Foruzandeh running an agent inside a camp for the Mujahideen-e-Khalq, an Iranian dissident cult group which fought on behalf of Iraq during the war and carried out a series of terrorist attacks in Iran.
Not many senior Ramazan Corps veterans appear to have retired. Iraj Masjedi, another Quds Force Iraq veteran, took over as Iran’s ambassador in Baghdad in 2017. Abdul Reza Shahlai, who served in Iraq during the occupation alongside Foruzandeh, is now at 63 years old reportedly the top Quds Force officer in Yemen and was unsuccessfully targeted in a U.S. airstrike there the same night that special operations forces killed Soleimani.
After the U.S. wound down its occupation in Iraq, Foruzandeh, gray-haired and portly, gave every impression of having retired and contented himself with the hobbies of old age, despite a U.S. sanctions designation on him during the war. He told an Iranian news outlet that he’d retired from the Quds Force in 2008, and was working on an oral history project about his hometown. In public, he spent his spent time shuffling between memorial ceremonies for fallen comrades.
It doesn’t appear to be true.
Another declassified intelligence document obtained by The Daily Beast offers hints that Foruzandeh may not have retired after all. The report, an account of senior Iranian officials’ participation in a museum project "documenting lessons learned from the Iran-Iraq war," suggests he kept at least a consulting role in Quds Force operations.
In describing the background of officials present at the meeting, the report says Foruzandeh still dabbled in "management of personnel and logistic support to IRGC-QF external activities." Iran’s Khorasan province “has been recently added to his portfolio." Iran’s Khorasan province borders northwest Afghanistan and by 2013, the Obama administration had already been arguing for years that Quds Force officers were secretly supporting the Taliban in order to weaken U.S. and NATO forces in the country.
There are some reasons to be skeptical of the declassified report. The sources claim that Foruzandeh was appointed a director of Iran’s Iran-Iraq war museum, but he’s not listed by the museum as an official or referred to as such in news accounts. It’s also dated around the same time Foruzandeh gave an interview to an Iranian news outlet announcing that he was working on a history project about his hometown’s role in the Iran-Iraq war.
Still, other evidence suggests Foruzandeh was still in the irregular warfare business.
In 2014, one of Foruzandeh’s closest colleagues in the Quds Force, fellow brigadier general and Ramazan Corps veteran Hamid Taghavi, was killed by ISIS in Iraq. The death came as a surprise, not least because Taghavi was one of the highest-ranking IRGC officers killed in Iraq since the Iran-Iraq war.
Like Foruzandeh, Taghavi was also supposed to have left active duty. Instead, he was in Iraq supporting a Shiite militia loyal to Iran, Sayara al-Khorasani, and organizing Iran’s fight against ISIS.
“Commander Taghavi was retired. No one thought he’d go to Iraq and be able to play a role in the mobilization and organization of the [Iraqi Popular Mobilization Units militia],” Foruzandeh told a meeting of Ahwaz city officials after his death.
Taghavi’s death hit Foruzandeh hard and he would break down in tears recounting his comrade’s life when talking to reporters. In one interview, Foruzandeh suggested he’d been in contact with Taghavi by phone shortly before his death and offered advice for his work standing up pro-Iranian militias after ISIS took Mosul
“He came to the place where we were stationed,” Foruzandeh said without elaborating. “We told him about the situation in Iraq, the characteristics of the conflict, the various Iraqi groups, and the challenges that existed. The Iraqi forces had deficiencies that needed to be addressed.”
Taghavi was concerned about Iranian-backed militias’ performance during operations in Jurf al-Sakhar, an Iraqi town captured by ISIS and taken back during a brutal operation coordinated by the Quds Force.
“He believed that unless these forces received better training they would suffer severe casualties. The casualties these forces suffered were generally due to a lack of proper military training. They didn’t know how to move, what to do when they’re under fire from the enemy, how to provide cover when attacking, or even how to clear traps and contaminants from an infected area,” Foruzandeh recalled.
One of the last public glimpses of Foruzandeh comes from an unlikely source: Facebook. Foruzandeh doesn’t appear to have a profile, but his acquaintances identified him in pictures during a 2016 visit to meet with Iraqi officials from Maysan Province. The photos show a grandfatherly Quds Force officer with his trademark scowl described as an “advisor” to Iran’s Supreme Leader, a tailored visiting dignitary in a place where decades before he was once a spry, hunted guerrilla in hand-me-down fatigues.
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