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Alex Potter for BuzzFeed News

Inside Iran’s Mission To Dominate The Middle East

Iran has enlisted tens of thousands of young Shiite men into an armed network that is challenging the US across the Middle East. The Trump administration is not prepared.

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BAGHDAD — Iran has built up a multinational network of tens of thousands of young men from across the Middle East, turning them into a well-drilled fighting machine that is outgunning the US on the battlefield, as Tehran outsmarts the White House in the corridors of power.

These men can be found leading the defense of the Syrian president, Bashar al-Assad, recapturing land from ISIS in Iraq, and fighting for control of the Yemeni capital of Sanaa. The transnational militia of Shiite men — which has no official title — is now the dominant force in the region, enabling Iran to take full advantage in the absence of a coherent strategy from the Trump White House.

Over six months, BuzzFeed News spoke to researchers, officials, and militia fighters who described what they knew about the Iranian program, overseen by the secretive Quds Force of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard and its infamous commander Qassem Suleimani — who often shows up on front lines in Iraq and Syria. Accounts by the fighters reveal the scale and structure of the program, and although many of the details could not be independently verified, BuzzFeed News was able to confirm all the fighters’ memberships in various armed groups. Their stories, collected independently, match one another — as well as accounts gathered by US military and intelligence officials.

Mustafa al-Freidawi is one of those men.

Freidawi, a compact man with a neatly trimmed black beard, fondly recalls his early days as a member of Iran’s militia. “It was a new adventure,” he said. “We were happy.” Speaking in a noisy restaurant in northern Baghdad earlier this year, Freidawi outlined how he was recruited, trained, and deployed to be part of a fighting force that aims to cement Iran’s influence in the Middle East, and beyond.

Freidawi grew up the son of a bus driver in the rundown neighborhood of Ur in northern Baghdad, before following in his father’s footsteps. But that was never going to be enough for a young man looking to find meaning in his life. In June 2013 he answered the call to join a Shiite militia group known as Asaheb ahl al-Haq — or the League of the Righteous — notorious in the 2000s for its roadside bomb attacks against US forces, and alleged human rights abuses against Iraq’s minority Sunni population.

Freidawi was given 10 days’ training at an Iraqi army base in the town of Abu Ghraib, west of Baghdad, before being dispatched to fight against Sunni insurgents. His first assignment was to join a team looking for three missing Iraqi soldiers in the town of Karma, east of Fallujah. Freidawi and his comrades stepped right into a terrible firefight. “I was so scared,” he said. “They were shooting at us like crazy. The other side believed we were broken. But we weren’t.”

Over the course of the next few months, Freidawi demonstrated his bravery and was quickly ushered up the chain of command. He soon adjusted to the long hours of waiting, punctuated by brief, intense moments of terror that characterize the life of a militiaman. What had started out as a volunteer effort to do some good for his “collapsing country,” as he described Iraq, was quickly evolving into a new career: professional gunman.

It was his talents on the battlefield that earned him the ultimate accolade for any young man fighting for the Shiite cause — he was recommended by his commanders for a 45-day military and ideological training program in Iran.

And so it was that on a cold January day in 2014, Freidawi found himself on a bus filled with fellow Shiite fighters, their spirits high, as it made its way along the highways and rural roads leading out of Baghdad. Heading southeast toward the long border with Iran, they dedicated songs to Zeinab, the sister of the martyred Imam Hussein. “For Zeinab, we became servants. With our chests, we welcome darts,” they sang.

It would be the first time many of these men had ever left Iraq. Hundreds of thousands of Iraqis visit their wealthier, calmer neighbor each year to make the pilgrimage to its holy sites, or to access its health care. But instead of getting their passports stamped as they crossed the border in Shalamcheh, the men handed over their identification papers to Iranian authorities. They also gave in their cell phones — there would be no gleeful selfies on this trip.

Though they had entered Iran, there would be no official trace of their presence.

The men were then taken to the airport in Ahvaz, a city of 1 million in Iran’s furthermost southwestern corner, where they boarded an unmarked plane. Freidawi, then 23 years old, was excited — he had never flown before — and snagged a window seat. He watched in awe as snowcapped mountains appeared in the distance, perhaps on the outskirts of the Iranian capital, Tehran. To this day he’s not sure exactly where he was taken; no one told them and the men had been advised not to ask questions.

Military training began right away. “No sleep, two hours of running every day. They taught us to be very hard and very patient ... We survived on little food and water,” said Freidawi. Smoking was banned, as were phone calls to friends and relatives back home. But by the time the course was over, Freidawi was ready for the next step of his adventure: to fight for Assad in Syria.

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Iran has been at odds with the West since 1979, when Islamic radicals overthrew the pro-US shah, Mohammad Reza Pahlavi, and established the country as a theocracy. Over the last decade Iran’s nuclear program has caused panic in Washington, DC, as successive administrations have struggled to work out how to deal with their regional bogeyman. This culminated in the controversial 2015 nuclear deal signed by Barack Obama — which Donald Trump now appears to have in his sights.

While Washington obsesses over Iran’s nuclear program, officials in Tehran are busying themselves with the facts on the ground in the Middle East. Ever since the US invasion of Iraq in 2003, Iran — a Shiite state — has had its eyes on its Shiite-majority neighbor, intent on taking over the levers of power, commerce, and the military. But this is just one part of Iran’s wider goal: to establish territorial dominance from the Gulf of Aden to the shores of the Mediterranean.

Iran’s enemies see the Shiite militia as little more than mercenaries, but Freidawi and his comrades sincerely believe in their cause. In their eyes, the threat posed by the region’s Sunni extremists, the US, and its allies is very real — and demands that they take up arms to defend their nations and their faith.

In the summer of 2011, as the Arab Spring uprisings were shaking regimes across the Middle East, hundreds of young Syrian and Lebanese men gathered in the mountains of the Bekaa Valley in Lebanon. They were watched over by military trainers from the Shiite militant group Hezbollah, according to Fidaa al-Itaani, a Lebanese journalist, who witnessed the scene.

Back then, Itaani was a big supporter of Hezbollah, even occasionally picking up a weapon and training alongside the group. But he’s since publicly turned against Hezbollah, and agreed to speak out about his experiences and insights into the training program. After witnessing the spectacle in the Bekaa Valley that day in 2011, he said he later asked a contact in Hezbollah’s intelligence unit why so many men were being trained so aggressively. Were they preparing for another war against Israel, he wondered. “We are training them in everything,” Itaani said the Hezbollah official told him. “Municipal governance, self-defense, religion, how to use the infrastructure of the state, electricity, water, civil defense.”

Itaani said he was stunned by the ambition and scale of a project that had originally started during the 1980s Israeli occupation of southern Lebanon as a means for Iran to draw young aimless Shiite men off the street and against an invading force. Over the decades Hezbollah has become increasingly powerful as a tool of Iranian foreign policy and perpetrator of alleged violence in the Middle East, Europe, and even Latin America.

Now these young men were being used to prepare for war across the border in Syria, where the Shiite were a distinct minority, and where Sunnis were battling to overthrow the Iranian-backed regime of Bashar al-Assad. “Assad may leave,” he described his contact as saying. “If so we will take a small part of Syria. If he wins, we will take all of Syria.”

Since the start of the Arab Spring, Iran has drawn tens of thousands of Iraqi, Lebanese and Afghan fighters to fight in the war for Syria. Ely Karmon, at the Interdisciplinary Center at Herzliya, Israel, estimates there are 5,000 to 7,000 Hezbollah fighters in Syria at any given time. The Fatemiyoun Brigade, a unit of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard, an elite branch of the armed forces, is comprised of Afghan fighters, and numbers up to 17,000 fighters. Hisham Hashemi, an Iraqi security expert, estimates around 65,000 Iraqi militia fighters have received training, weapons, or funding from Iran.

US and Israeli officials have voiced grave concerns about what appears be an emerging land bridge of fighting groups loyal to Tehran stretching from Iran’s Zagros Mountains all the way to the borders of Israel — but seem powerless in their attempts to stop it. Iran appears to be using these men in ever more creative ways, in an ongoing sectarian and geopolitical war that pits pro-Iranian Shiite countries and organizations against a Saudi-led bloc of conservative Sunni governments backed by the US.

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Others worry that building up a multinational network of highly trained and experienced combatants could have lasting consequences for a region already awash in arms, extremism, and overlapping conflicts. “What will happen with all these Iraqis, Afghans, Pakistanis fighting in Syria? Many will go home,” said Karmon. “But 500 or 1,000 is all it takes to organize a terrorist network. It will be a future threat. Their role is now strategic.”

The Iranian training of militia fighters seems to be accelerating, with fresh recruits and veterans of past training missions planning trips to Iran this year, according to the fighters themselves. Recent recruits described being trained in the use of explosively formed penetrators (EFPs), which can pierce the armor of military vehicles and were used extensively against US forces during the occupation of Iraq a decade ago.

Iran’s reach extends beyond Syria and its neighbors. US and other officials suspect that Iranian training of fighters in Yemen — where Tehran’s Houthi allies control the capital — is behind recent attacks on ships off the coast of Yemen that some worry could cripple crucial sea lanes.

Fighting loosely organized and diverse armed groups of men who blend easily into civilian populations also presents a significant challenge to the US and its allies, one for which conventional tools of warfare rarely suffice. “It’s a huge threat,” said retired Brig. Gen. Yossi Kuperwasser, a former adviser to Israel’s ministry of strategic affairs former and chief of the research division at the Israeli Defense Force’s Military Intelligence branch. “The fact that we have F-16s and F-35s is not relevant to this problem.”

Iran’s ruling elite is opaque at the best of times, and figures within Tehran’s security apparatus have rarely disclosed details about the training program. No one outside Iran's circle of security leaders knows what it is called — one Iranian national security insider told BuzzFeed News that it doesn’t even have an official title. In the media, Iranian officials describe the fighters as “Defenders of the Holy Shrines,” in reference to their role in protecting Shiite religious sites. In rare moments when Iranian officials do talk about the program, they describe it in grand terms, linking its aims to the establishment of a just world order that will come about with the return of the Mahdi, the disappeared 12th Imam in Shiite theology, whose reappearance they say will herald a new age.

It’s also a battle Tehran sees as a direct assault on US influence in the Middle East. “The Americans spent $3 trillion in the war in Afghanistan under the pretext of fighting al-Qaeda but they are still wandering lost in the region,” Ismail Qaani, deputy commander of Iran’s elite Quds Force said during a speech earlier this year commemorating the role of the Fatemiyoun Brigade, the mostly Afghan militia fighting for Iranian aims in Syria. “The United States and Israel should know that the Fatemiyoun is growing and resistance in the world has spread. This is just the beginning. America must pay attention.”

BuzzFeed News sought comment from several Iranian Foreign Ministry and security officials, but none responded. Ali Omidi, a professor of international relations at the University of Isfahan in Iran, surmised that the main goals of Iran’s militia program are to maintain Iran’s security by weakening or eliminating radical Sunni groups; strengthening Iran’s strategic objectives by expanding the capabilities of its allies; keeping a balance of power favorable to Iran in the Middle East; and countering rivals such as the US and Israel. But he cautioned that the program remains shrouded in mystery. “These matters are categorized confidential and secret and there is no verified or reliable information about them,” he said.

Even Iran’s critics marvel at the grandiosity of the Iranian vision, with its mixture of political and military power in Iraq, Yemen, Lebanon, Syria, and other countries, including Bahrain, Saudi Arabia, and even Nigeria, where an unarmed franchise of Hezbollah operates.

US officials, struggling to build up the capacity of allies from the Red Sea to the Mediterranean, grudgingly acknowledge Iran’s mastery of this particular style of warfare. “In Iraq, Afghanistan, and Yemen — anywhere we’ve trained — they suck; they can’t shoot straight,” one former US official said, in frustration. “The Iranians train these guys and they become good fighters.”

Iran’s armed groups are made up of men like Mustafa al-Freidawi, recruited from the proud and pious poor of the Middle East’s slums. Across the region, a sort of modus operandi for recruiting them has developed over the decades. At first, small Hezbollah cells scout out the terrain for local grievances to exploit and recruits to draw. “After that they send special advisers to connect with people, pay money to rent, or, if possible, buy houses,” according to Itaani, the former Hezbollah supporter. “Later they send political and religious guys to start to convince people. Only much later, they start to train fighters and militias.”

Freidawi and six others, including two Hezbollah fighters in Lebanon, described a grueling application and vetting process for anyone joining an Iranian-backed militia. Recruiters want to know every detail about a potential militiaman: family, friends, distant relations, political views, religious habits.

“They were shooting at us like crazy. The other side believed we were broken. But we weren’t.”
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Commanders seek recruits of a certain type: young neighborhood guys as comfortable with Shiite religious instruction as with Russian small arms. According to a groundbreaking 2008 report by the Center for Combatting Terrorism that cited transcripts of US military interviews with captured Iraqi Shiite militiamen, recruiters look for traits that include “open-mindedness,” physical stamina, maturity, organizational skills, and “responsibility” in individuals who are relatively docile and don’t ask a lot of questions.

Recruits, in turn, draw others in their circle. Freidawi’s decision to join the militia had a knock-on effect, inspiring others in his neighborhood to join. Freidawi introduced one of them as his close friend, Mohammed Jabbar Kadhem, who signed up a year after him.

The two men spoke at a morning meeting at the same busy restaurant that is their regular hangout. Kadhem said that he had been a mostly unemployed construction worker in northern Baghdad before he decided to follow Freidawi’s path. After months of hanging out with the militia as a volunteer, Kadhem formally joined the group in May 2014, and received a $150 signing bonus. Cash at first came occasionally, perhaps another $150 now and then. Both men said they felt well looked after by the group. “They ask us, ‘Do you need a salary? Do you have kids or are you supporting someone?’” said Freidawi.

After training for 10 days in the Iraqi city of Abu Ghraib, Kadhem soon found himself on the battlefield, fighting alongside other Shiite militiamen against insurgents near Kirkuk. This was followed by an assignment in Diyala province, where three of his comrades were killed in a suicide bombing. Having impressed his commanders, Kadhem was recommended for a five-day engineering course in Lej Spring, a base 30 miles south of Baghdad, which Saddam Hussein had used decades earlier to prepare Palestinians to fight Israel. Kadhem learned how to place and remove roadside bombs, and to employ the same tricks that ISIS uses — including booby-trapped refrigerators and weapons attached to explosive tripwires — against the jihadis. He also said he learned how to make armor-piercing EFPs.

The trainers spoke broken Arabic — Kadhem suspected they were Iranian, but wasn’t sure. “We didn’t ask because we thought if we asked it might create some problems,” he said.

In return for loyalty, the fighters get salaries considered generous by local standards. Freidawi said he was paid around 5 million Iraqi dinars ($4,100) a year, but hopes that it will double under new rules that officially incorporate militias into the Iraqi state. Lebanese Hezbollah fighters receive relatively high-quality private education in the organization’s network of Iranian-funded schools.

Once recruited into an Iranian-backed militia, the men must adhere to a strict set of rules, and are kept under constant surveillance. Iraqi and Lebanese fighters said they were banned from going abroad to any country outside of Iran, Syria, Iraq, or Lebanon without the permission of commanders. The price for disobeying orders was high — cross them, and you’re out forever, looking over your shoulders your entire life for fear of an assassin’s bullet. Itaani, for example, now lives in a rented house on top of a barren mountain 40 miles outside Beirut, protected by guard dogs and closed-circuit television cameras he has installed around the perimeter out of fear the Hezbollah fighters he once considered fellow travelers will kill him.

Recruits head to Iran only when they are recommended for advanced training. After arriving for training near Tehran, Freidawi and his comrades were assigned to bunk beds in dormitory halls. The facilities were clean, but it was colder than anything they had ever experienced, with snow blanketing the valley surrounding the base.

Iranian trainers showed them how to use machine guns, 14.5mm and 23mm high-caliber mounted guns. Courses were named after heroes of the self-described axis of resistance against Israel and the West: Mostafa Chamran, the Iranian guerrilla fighter who helped train Shiite fighters in Lebanon and died leading a battle against Iraqi forces; Imad Mughniyeh, the infamous Hezbollah commander assassinated in Damascus; and Fathi Shaqaqi, founder of Islamic Jihad, the Palestinian militant group. They focused on infantry training, commando, and rapid-response operations. During one training course, fighters were dropped off in the wilderness and forced to survive for weeks.

Specialized training included firing medium-range rockets and testing military vehicles. One Hezbollah fighter said Iranian-trained Hezbollah pilots have been using aircraft in Syria. Another described training on Iranian Bourkan or Volcano and Zelzeleh rockets, which Hezbollah fighters have used frequently against Israel. Veterans of the training program said they or their colleagues had also trained alongside Pakistanis, Afghans, and Yemenis.

Despite the harsh military regiment and strict rules, Freidawi said he was impressed with the regard their Iranian hosts showed them. “They were treating us very well,” said Freidawi. “Imagine: They used to clean our clothes and socks by hand. They called us mujahedeen, and said they would kiss our boots.”

To overcome the language barrier, seasoned Lebanese fighters sometimes serve as trainers. One man who knows the entire process of recruiting, training, and deploying pro-Iranian fighters is Hoder, a Hezbollah commander who agreed to meet with BuzzFeed News earlier this year in southern Beirut. He asked that his last name and other identifying details not be published, out of fear of retribution.

Hoder joined Hezbollah in the early 1990s and has fought repeatedly against Israel, including in the 2006 summer war that was the last major conflict between the two. He estimated that 2,000 of his colleagues had been deployed to Iraq to train militiamen, and said that Hezbollah trainers had also been dispatched to Yemen to prep the Iranian-allied Houthi fighters ahead of their 2015 takeover of Sanaa, the capital. Hoder himself has helped prepare fighters in Syria and Iraq.

“We train them in all kinds of street weapons,” Hoder said. “First of all, we give them a good lesson in guerilla warfare. We take them to the field and we give lessons in the classroom. We go over previous losses and discuss what their mistakes were.”

Those who are physically fit might be assigned to combat roles, while older or weaker men would be given a communications jobs, or taught first aid or a language, including Hebrew or Farsi. The entire system has been streamlined over the decades, turned into a machine for producing increasingly well-trained and motivated fighters loyal to Iran.

“I’m glad there’s a fellow Muslim country that allows us to do this,” Hoder said of the training program. “What we learn, we used on the ground in [southern Lebanon] against the Israelis in 2006, and in Aleppo in 2015.”

“And hopefully, in the Galilee someday soon,” referring to the northern part of Israel, mincing no words about the ultimate purpose of his efforts.

One day last January, US trainers in Humvees accompanying a group of Iraqi soldiers on a training exercise arrived at a checkpoint at the entrance to the Hamrin Mountains north of Baghdad. They expected to be waved through. Instead, they were halted by the fighters of the Nujaba Hezbollah movement, who manned the checkpoint. An argument ensued. The militiamen stood their ground. The US and Iraqi forces ultimately retreated, heading back to their camp, according to Iraqi officials and local press accounts.

“Iraqi volunteer forces blocked the US soldiers’ path to the mountain in northern Salahuddin and expelled them from the region once again,” said a convoluted version of the story that appeared in pro-regime Iranian media.

The incident was one of many that show how Iranian-backed Shiite militias have few qualms about flexing their muscles throughout the region, and frustrating US goals.

In Iraq, the war against ISIS has propelled the paramilitary forces into a formidable military and political force with as many as 172,000 men. Iraq’s Shiite militias now have their own TV stations, construction businesses, and even sponsor soccer clubs. They control vast patronage networks that provide jobs and a sense of purpose to thousands of mostly, poor young Iraqi men while empowering their political bosses in Baghdad.

Last year, the Iraqi prime minister, Haider al-Abadi, announced plans to recognize the paramilitary groups, formally called Popular Mobilization Units, or PMUs, as a branch of the armed forces in recognition of their growing power. Iranian-backed militias including Asaheb ahl al-Haq have taken up positions on the front lines adjacent to the city of Tal Afar, complicating plans by US-led forces and the Abadi government in Baghdad to use the less controversial Iraqi army to retake the city from ISIS. On Saturday, Abadi said Iraqi militias, which include both Sunni tribal groups and Shiite fighters, would take part in the offensive to recapture Tal Afar, raising fears of further sectarian conflict.

In Yemen, Houthi fighters allied with Iran seized control of the capital, Sanaa, driving out forces loyal to the United Nations–backed government. US and Israeli officials were shocked after the Houthis began using remote-controlled drone boats and firing land-to-sea missiles at ships along the crucial Bab al-Mandib strait, a major transit point for world energy supplies. The missiles had previously been used by Hezbollah to disable Israeli ships during the 2006 war in Lebanon.

“That the Houthis have the anti-ship cruise missiles and the drone boats suggests there’s some level of training,” said Michael Connell, a former US Army officer who heads the Iran program of the Center for Naval Analyses, a federally funded think tank. “These are not something where you can just open the crate and start using it. This is not something where you can just read the manual. They have to be trained up, and that takes a couple of months.”

More worrying to some is the way the militias use military power to cement potentially long-term political changes. For example, Iran’s intervention may have helped transform Yemen’s Houthis, from a tribal rebellion against the government in Sanaa into sectarian movement that has adopted the anti-Israeli and anti-Western slogans of Tehran and Hezbollah.

“What worries me about the Houthis is not that they receive military support from Iran, but that they are becoming part of the ideological axis,” Ely Karmon said.

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“We are winning. Look who’s running Lebanon. Look who’s controlling Sanaa and Baghdad.”

All across the Middle East, Iran’s allies feel the wind is at their back. Recently Donald Trump stood alongside the Lebanese Prime Minister Saad Hariri and praised him for combatting Hezbollah, apparently unaware he was serving in a government that includes the militant group. “We are winning,” said Hoder, the Hezbollah commander. “Look who’s running Lebanon. Look who’s controlling Sanaa and Baghdad.”

In Syria, stories abound of Shiite families from Iraq and Lebanon settling lands where Sunnis have fled the war. It has also become increasingly apparent that Iranian allies have been attempting to establish positions near the border at key Iraqi transit points, and at the frontier with Israel at the occupied Golan Heights.

The US and Iran’s allies have also begun to lock horns inside Syria. On May 18, US officials nervously watching over a group of US commandos near a remote base in southern Syria spotted what appeared to be a convoy of 20 or so vehicles heading towards them, with 13 of them “advancing well inside an established de-confliction zone," according to a Pentagon statement.

The US dispatched two fighter jets “as a show of force” to halt the advance of what later turned out to be a convoy of Iranian-backed militias. The convoy allegedly refused to turn back, and the US launched airstrikes that destroyed at least two vehicles.

US officials have grown increasingly vocal about the Iran’s proxies, and are working on strategies to counter them. “We watch Iran's impact across the region from the militia they maintain,” said US Secretary of Defense James Mattis during a visit to Saudi Arabia in April. “Iran's got its own military inside Syria, continuing to hold Assad in power. Everywhere you look, if there is trouble in the region, you find Iran.”

The US’s regional allies have poured resources into monitoring Iran’s militias. They use both electronic surveillance and networks of informers across the region. “Israel knows what Iran is building, who they’re working with, what the training is, and where the training is,” said Kuperwasser, the retired brigadier general and former research division chief. “We keep trying to find ways to start slow them down so when the big war starts they have less capability.”

But other experts argue for a more nuanced approach to confronting Iran’s foreign legion, which includes an ideological as well as a military dimension. Any successful effort to counter Iran may need capitalize on political voices already opposed to Tehran’s actions.

In Arab and South Asian countries where recruits are drawn, the Iranian program is highly controversial. Pakistan this year shut down a charity suspected of recruiting young Shiite men into the Zeinabiyoun Brigade fighting Syria. Afghan officials meanwhile have warned that up to 18,000 men fighting in Syria could return home and wreak havoc.

Even Iranians are divided over the regime’s support for the militias. According to a survey released on July 28 by the Center for International and Security Studies at Maryland and IranPoll, 39% of Iranians would be open to curtailing the regime’s backing for Hezbollah and the Assad regime in exchange for reducing US sanctions, with 58% opposed. Within Iran there are the beginnings of an unprecedented public criticism of the program. On April 22 of this year, an Iranian student in the northwest city of Tabriz made waves when he spoke out against Iran’s support for armed groups around the region. “Your theory is a theory of horror and terror, and exporting arms and war,” he said, addressing Hassan Abbasi, who heads the IRGC’s think tank, according to a video of the event. “Your theory is supporting the dictatorial and murderous Bashar al-Assad.”

A week later, Tehran’s former mayor Gholamhossein Karbaschi, speaking at a public forum, questioned Iran’s dispatching of fighters across the region. “We want peace in Syria, Lebanon, Yemen, and such countries, support the oppressed and back up the Shiite,” he said. “But can this be accomplished just by giving money, buying weapons, killing, and beating?”

The gunfire started early in the morning, and continued until sunset. Then the mortars and rockets struck the hills south of Damascus where Freidawi and his fellow fighters had been deployed in early 2014 to stave off an advance by Syrian rebels fighting against Assad. The fighting was terrifying and relentless — an experience for which all the training in the world couldn’t have prepared him.

“We were assigned to a territory and told not to let the enemy enter,” Freidawi said. “It was a street battle. The first five days were the worst. It went on like this for 20 days. We lost so many men. So many were injured.”

There was one saving grace. After being forced to abstain from tobacco and cell phones for those weeks in Iran, at least he could chain-smoke cigarettes and make calls to his family again. The mostly older fighters were impressed with Friedawi’s pluck. They gave him a nickname: “shibd al-assad,” or lion cub.

Three weeks into the battle, a cry of joy went up. Lebanese Hezbollah fighters had arrived as reinforcements to begin a counteroffensive. The mood lifted as they began to fight back against the rebels. February snows started to melt as the tide of the war shifted with the help of Iranian-trained fighters from Syria’s neighbors.

In Syria, as well as in Iraq and Yemen, the Iranian-trained fighters have proved invaluable assets backing Tehran’s allies. Syria has served as a finishing school for the recruits — a place where they refine their battle skills in combat situations, perhaps the most extreme and complicated war in a generation.

“In Syria, there was not a single day I was not shot at by a sniper,” said one Iraqi fighter deployed repeatedly to the eastern suburbs of Damascus between weeks-long training courses in Iran. “In Iraq, we liberate 50 kilometers in one day. In Syria it takes 15 days to move 50 meters.”

In the summer of 2015, Kadhem — Freidawi’s friend — was deployed to southern Aleppo. He flew from Iran’s Ahwaz Airport to Damascus and then went by bus to help try to break the siege of Fuaa and Kefraya, two Shiite towns surrounded by Sunni rebel fighters. He was assigned to a checkpoint. Just secure the ground were his orders.

“We gave 40 martyrs. But the Iranians were alongside us. They were leading us. They needed us to back them up.”

It turned into a summer of hell. The fighting was ferocious, the rebels armed with Coronet rockets and Katyusha missiles. “It was not like in Iraq,” he said, where he battled ISIS and its precursors.

During one battle, they were lured from their position into a valley, and quickly ambushed. Badly outmanned and outgunned, they scampered into tunnels, where they were hunted down and shot dead. “We gave 40 martyrs,” he recalled. “But the Iranians were alongside us. They were leading us. They needed us to back them up.”

While an occasional Hezbollah or Asaheb ahl al-Haq fighter might be cynical about the militia business, most are grateful to have a meaningful job. In their own communities, they are heroes, who risk their lives daily to protect their people.

“There is an ideological commitment,” said Connell, of the Center for Naval Analyses. “It’s not purely self-interest that gets people to join. They do believe in what they’re doing.”

During two lengthy talks, Freidawi spoke repeatedly about Salaam Abu Taiba, a famed Asaheb ahl al-Haq commander who recruited, trained with him in Iran, and fought alongside him in Iraq and Syria him before getting killed in battle against ISIS last year. Freidawi now wears his late mentor’s bulletproof vest.

“In the early days we didn’t even receive salaries,” he said. “We fought for our beliefs, for the Shiite.”

In January, when he and his friend Kadhem met with BuzzFeed, he was preparing to return to Iran, this time for two 45-day training missions. He said he was looking forward to it, even though he knew he’d be banned from smoking his beloved shisha and from using cell phones for another long stretch.

“I feel like Iran is our mother,” he said. ●


Khalid Ali in Baghdad, Miriam Berger in Tel Aviv, and correspondents in Beirut and Washington contributed to this report.


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Borzou Daragahi is a Middle East correspondent for BuzzFeed News and is based in Istanbul.

Contact Borzou Daragahi at borzou.daragahi@buzzfeed.com.

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