BAGHDAD, June 9 (UPI) -- As Iran steps up its drive to expand its influence across the Middle East, exploiting the political upheaval in the Arab world, the Revolutionary Guards are reported to be beefing up a key Shiite group in Iraq for covert operations in the Persian Gulf monarchies.
Intelligence Online, a Web site that covers global security issues, reports that the Guards Corps' elite Quds Force is grooming the Mehdi Army, a militia headed by radical cleric Moqtada Sadr, to operate outside Iraq for the first time as an Iranian proxy.
The Quds Force is the Revolutionary Guards' external arm that conducts clandestine operations across the region. It runs Iran's main surrogate, Hezbollah of Lebanon, and is known to have carried out operations across the region.
In the past, Tehran has called on Hezbollah, the most powerful military force in Lebanon, to mount clandestine operations on its behalf.
The U.S. military says Hezbollah operatives helped the Revolutionary Guards, also known as the Pasdaran, train and operate the Mehdi Army and other Shiite groups in Iraq against U.S. forces after the 2003 invasion.
But Hezbollah currently has its hands full in Lebanon facing Israel, building up its strength for a new war against the Jewish state that many see as inevitable, and backing the party's political rise.
"If the Guardians of the Revolution have their way, the Mehdi Army will carry out covert operations in the gulf and the Near East, following Hezbollah's example," Intelligence Online noted.
It said the Quds Force summoned Sadr and Ammar al-Hakim, leader of the Badr Organization, military wing of the Iranian-backed Supreme Islamic Council of Iraq, to Tehran in mid-May to discuss the training and reorganization of these groups.
IO said the Iranian program in Iraq is headed by Brig. Gen. Mohsen Chirazi, the third-ranking commander of the Quds Force.
Chirazi was recently reported to have been in Syria, Iran's key Arab ally, training counter-insurgency forces there to combat an 11-week-old insurrection that seeks the overthrow of the Damascus regime of President Bashar Assad.
Chirazi was a pivotal figure in Iran's clandestine operations in Iraq against the Americans and the Baghdad government in 2005-07.
He worked closely with Qais Khazali, a leading figure in the League of the Righteous, an offshoot of Sadr's movement controlled by Tehran.
The Iranian general was captured by U.S. forces in Baghdad in December 2006 with another high-ranking Quds Force officer. They were later freed in a prisoner exchange with Tehran.
"One of Chirazi's priorities is to provide the Shiite militia with a counterintelligence service that can prevent splits and infiltrations," IO reported.
"Members of Hezbollah, whose own internal security is exemplary, are in charge of setting up the service.
"In the past the Mehdi Army has been hit by dissension … By professionalizing the Mehdi Army and the Badr Organization, Iran will have a backup force that will be able to intervene in Syria to support Bashar Assad's regime, or in Lebanon should Hezbollah come under intense attack.
"Having failed to take control of the Shiite protest movements in Bahrain, Kuwait and Saudi Arabia, the Pasdaran also want to strengthen their networks of covert cells in the gulf, and count on the Iraqi groups to further develop and run the network," IO noted.
In March, a Kuwaiti court sentenced two Iranians and a Kuwaiti to death for spying for Iran and planning sabotage attacks in the northern Persian Gulf emirate, a U.S. ally.
Bahrain, a tiny island kingdom in the gulf off Saudi Arabia's east coast, has accused Iran and Hezbollah of inciting and aiding Shiite protesters demanding the downfall of the Sunni monarchy in political turmoil that erupted in February.
Sadr, who fled Iraq in 2007 when his forces were crushed, returned in 2010 and has warned that his partisans will take up arms again if the U.S. military withdrawal isn't completed on schedule by Dec. 31.
The government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki appears to want some U.S. forces -- between 10,000-20,000 by some accounts -- to remain after that date to maintain stability.
The Americans concur, because a full withdrawal will open the door to Iranian power in Iraq, which could then threaten Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and the other oil-rich Sunni monarchies on the Persian Gulf's western shore.