8 years ago
In testimony to Congress on Monday, General David Petraeus called out Iran for aspirations of regional hegemony in a way not heretofore heard from him or the Multinational Force. “It is increasingly apparent to both coalition and Iraqi leaders that Iran, through the use of the Quds force, seeks to turn the Iraqi special groups into a Hezbollah-like force to serve its interests and fight a proxy war against the Iraqi state and coalition forces in Iraq.”
This warning isn’t dissimilar to the counsel we gave on March 27, 2007, discussing the return of Moqtada al Sadr from his Iranian vacation:
Sadr will be received back as not just a hero, but as someone almost divine, who stood down the U.S. Any capture of Sadr and turnover to the courts of Iraq would have the opposite outcome of that intended, because no Iraqi court will convict Sadr of crimes, thus exhonerating and codifying him in his rule of his followers.
Iran will then have their forces deployed in Lebanon, headed by Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah, and in Iraq, headed by Moqtada al Sadr. Only confident actions by the administration – rather than acquiescence by the State Department – will avert such an outcome.
We followed this up with The Rise of the Jam, in which we documented the creation and growth of the Jaish al Mahdi, including the criminal-like behavior of its members. There is no dearth of evidence concerning the actions and intentions of the JAM, including its support base, Iran and the IRG (Quds). A quick reading of the introduction to Michael Ledeen’s new book The Iranian Time Bomb will disabuse the naive of the notion that Iran is merely protecting its interests. Iranian interests have nothing whatsoever to do with Iran, a notion not grasped by those who think of Iran as a nation-state. As stated by Khomeini:
“We do not worship Iran. We worship Allah. For patriotism is is another name for paganism. I say let this land [Iran] burn. I say let this land go up in smoke, provided Islam emerges triumphant in the rest of the world.” Ledeen comments of its more recent history, “Without exception, their core beliefs are totally contrary to the notion they are a traditional nation-state.”
Yet Ryan Crocker hedged Monday night speaking to Brit Hume on Foxnews, saying that the involvement of Iran in Iraq was “self-limiting” due to historical bitterness over the Iraq-Iran war and the fact that the Iranians are “Persians.” Crocker is a smart man, and this hedging is inexplicable given the robust statement by General Petraeus.
Baby steps are being made to address the Iranian issue. A U.S. base is currently being constructed along the Iraq-Iran border to interdict Iranian elements (see also here).
BARDA, Iraq — The Pentagon is preparing to build its first base for U.S. forces near the Iraqi-Iranian border, in a major new effort to curb the flow of advanced Iranian weaponry to Shiite militants across Iraq.
The push also includes construction of fortified checkpoints on the major highways leading from the Iranian border to Baghdad and the installation of X-ray machines and explosives-detecting sensors at the only formal border crossing between Iran and Iraq.
The measures come as the U.S. high command in Iraq has begun to recalibrate the overall American mission in the country to focus less on the Sunni Muslim radicals who were long the primary U.S. targets of pacifying the country and more on the Shiite Muslim militias suspected of maintaining close ties to Iran …
Gen. Petraeus is expected to warn that Iran is expanding its attempts to destabilize Iraq by providing Shiite extremists with lethal weaponry such as advanced roadside bombs capable of breaching even the strongest U.S. armor. U.S. commanders say that Iranian-made weaponry is used in an increasing percentage of attacks on U.S. forces, and that Shiite extremists are now responsible for as many anti-American attacks as Sunni radicals.
Iran denies supplying weapons to Iraqi militants, but the accusation is at the center of escalating tensions between Washington and Tehran that have sparked talk of a possible American military strike on Iran.
“We’ve got a major problem with Iranian munitions streaming into Iraq,” said Maj. Gen. Rick Lynch, the commander of the Army’s 3rd Infantry Division. “This Iranian interference is troubling and we have to stop it.”
He said advanced roadside bombs — a type the U.S. says are made in the region only in Iran — have been used against his forces in central and southern Iraq, killing nine American soldiers. Gen. Lynch also said the U.S. stopped a planned attack on an American base that would have made use of Iranian-made rockets.
U.S. officials acknowledge the difficulty of stemming the flow of weapons across a border that is unfenced and thinly patrolled in many parts. But they hope that forcing smugglers off the main roads will make it easier to spot the militants through aerial surveillance.
Gen. Lynch says the new effort to curb the flow of Iranian weaponry will have several components: stationing U.S. soldiers at a new base to be built close to the border; building six fortified checkpoints to be manned by troops from the former Soviet republic of Georgia on the highways and major roads leading from the Iranian border to Baghdad; and installing better detection equipment at the Zurbatiya border crossing to make it harder for militants to hide weapons in the hundreds of trucks that pass into Iraq from Iran every day.
The new U.S. base, to be located about four miles from the Iranian border, is meant to be a central component of the expansive American effort to hinder the weapons smuggling. U.S. officers say they plan to use the new base for at least two years, though they say it is unclear whether the outpost will be among the small number of facilities that would remain in Iraq after any future large-scale U.S. withdrawal from the country …
The challenge of preventing Shiite militants from smuggling weaponry and explosives across the largely porous Iraqi-Iranian border was apparent on a recent visit to Wasit, a sparsely populated Iraqi province that abuts the long border between the two countries. There is no fence or wall separating Iran and Iraq, and the border itself is unmarked.
The only Iraqi government presence is a string of primitive border forts, which lack power and running water. The Iraqi officers who command the forts say chronic fuel shortages mean that they and their men don’t have enough gas to drive along the border looking for infiltrators from Iran.
Compounding the challenge, the province is populated by Shiite tribes that have profited for decades by smuggling items to and from Iran. U.S. commanders say the tribes are adept at using the deep gorges and wadis that crisscross the desert to pass into and out of Iran undetected.
“The tribes used to use these same routes to bring in weapons for the Shiite groups fighting Saddam in the 1980s and 1990s,” says Col. Mark Mueller, who commands a military advisory team working with Iraq’s poorly funded border guards. “They’ve been doing this a long, long time.”
Nevertheless, U.S. commanders believe the new checkpoints will boost their interdiction efforts by forcing militants to avoid using the major highways where the checkpoints are situated and instead travel on small dirt roads or across the open desert, where the smugglers’ vehicles stand a better chance of being spotted by American satellites, drones and surveillance airplanes.
“You want to separate the sheep from the wolves, and push the wolves to alternate routes that are easier to interdict,” Col. Mueller says.
Further, regarding the stand-down of the Mahdi army, it should be pointed out that Sadr is using this opportunity to overhaul his armed forces.
Iraq’s most powerful Shiite militia leader is turning to his commanders who distinguished themselves fighting U.S. troops in 2004 to screen fighters, weed out criminals and assume key positions in an effort to build a more disciplined force, two of his key lieutenants say.
That suggests the goal of Muqtada al-Sadr’s temporary freeze of Mahdi Army activities, announced Aug. 29 following deadly Shiite-Shiite clashes in Karbala, is to bolster the militia to intimidate his Shiite rivals as the anti-American cleric pursues his political ambitions.
A stronger and more efficient Mahdi Army could embolden al-Sadr to take on the rival Badr militia, a move that could fragment and weaken the country’s majority Shiites as gunmen battle for control of Shiite towns and cities …
The task of weeding out militiamen with suspect loyalty and screening new recruits already has begun and will take months to complete, according to the two al-Sadr lieutenants, who also are militia leaders who fought the Americans in Najaf in the summer of 2004 and in Sadr City in the fall …
“The (Mahdi) army will be stronger and better organized,” said one of them.
Both said the screening and reorganization process will be supervised nationwide by a 12-man council hand-picked by al-Sadr …
If the reorganization goes according to plan, the new Mahdi Army should emerge as a more disciplined and organized force – similar to its main Shiite rival, the Badr Organization, which is linked to the biggest Shiite party, the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council.
Tension between Mahdi and Badr has been steadily rising and a showdown between them is widely expected for domination of the Shiite south, which includes most of the oil wealth and major religious shrines. Control of the shrines brings millions of dollars in donations from Shiites worldwide.
Al-Sadr is not likely to risk a head-on confrontation with the U.S. military as in 2004. But a stronger Mahdi Army would enable him to resist Washington’s repeated calls to disband the militias, blamed for the wave of sectarian bloodshed that escalated last year.
A Mahdi Army firmly under al-Sadr’s control could reduce what the U.S. military says are attacks by rogue Shiite militiamen controlled by Iran.
Last June, those rogue militiamen accounted for nearly 75 percent of the attacks against U.S. troops in the Baghdad area that caused casualties.
Both the government of Shiite Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, a one-time close ally of al-Sadr, and the U.S. military welcomed the decision to take the Mahdi Army out of action.
However, there are worrying signs that the freeze is only a cover to buy al-Sadr time to overhaul the militia, improving its mobility and combat readiness.
Al-Sadr’s supporters in Basra, Iraq’s second largest city, did not sign a “charter of honor” reached by representatives of 30 groups and militias there to keep the peace after British troops completed their withdrawal from the city last week.
Residents say the Mahdi Army says it is now entitled to Basra, arguing that it was its almost nightly shelling of British bases in the city and other attacks that forced them to leave. Al-Sadr’s representatives in Basra have also warned they would fight U.S. troops if they move into Basra in the case of a security vacuum.
“They say they fought the British, so Basra is theirs,” said Dagher al-Moussawi, a Shiite lawmaker.
In Sadr City, armed Mahdi Army militiamen stayed off the streets soon after al-Sadr made his Aug. 29 announcement but several were seen in the district over the weekend with some carrying what appeared to be U.S.-made M-4 assault rifles, the type used by American troops.
There have been reports in the United States that some of the weapons destined for Iraq’s security forces have disappeared and remain unaccounted for.
Another Shiite lawmaker, who demanded anonymity for fear of reprisals, said the freeze was designed in part to spare the militia the ongoing campaign by U.S. forces and their Iraqi allies against militiamen suspected of involvement in attacks or sectarian violence.
“He wants to save the Mahdi Army by taking it out and use the time to improve it,” he said.
Ryan Crocker, for all of his intelligence, did us no favors on Monday by demurring on Iran’s role in the region. Iran has a direct role, and the base being constructed for purposes of interdiction points to an attempt to halt that direct effect. Iran also has an indirect effect, the military forces it has deployed throughout Iraq, Badr and the JAM. It is irrelevant that they currently fight each other for Basra. They both belong to Iran. Petraeus spoke in clearer terms than Crocker, pointing to what will be the most significant obstacle to pacification of Iraq: Iran.