For a few days, the United States asserted that Moqtada al Sadr was in Iran, and some Sadr loyalists said this was not the case. CNN has an Iraqi official, Sami al Askari, an adviser to Prime Minister Maliki, confirming the assetions of the U.S. The Guardian has an unnamed high-level (such a description makes one wonder if this is also Askari) stating that Sadr and numerous Mahdi commanders are in Iran:
"Over the last three weeks, they [Iran] have taken away from Baghdad the first and second-tier military leaders of the Mahdi army," he said. The aim of the Iranians was to "prevent the dismantling of the infrastructure of the Shia militias" in the Iraqi capital - one of the chief aims of the US-backed security drive.The Washington Post had two intelligence officials on background:
"The strategy is to lie low until the storm passes, and then let them return and fill the vacuum," said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity. The Tehran authorities were "playing a waiting game" until the commanders could return to Baghdad and resume their activities. "All indications are that Moqtada is in Iran, but that is not really the point," he added.
"They [the Iranians] are calculating that the security operation will continue for a certain period of time, and that it will do serious damage to the Sunni jihadists and the insurgents," the official said. "While in Iran they will be able to get more training and then once the Sunnis have been pacified, they plan to return."
"I believe that he went to Iran for a strategic session" with the Revolutionary Guard "and Iran's other proxies in Iraq to determine actually how they will undermine America's plans," the official said. Another source, an intelligence official in Washington, said Sadr is believed to have been in Iran for several weeks. The source, who also spoke on condition of anonymity, said speculation about the timing of his reported departure on the eve of the security plan might be overblown. "There could be any number of reasons for a trip there," the source said, noting that Sadr has traveled to Iran before. "He's got contacts and family in Iran."When news of Sadr's flight first broke on CNN, unnamed administration officials were a little too boastful about the development. The administration continues to perceive what it wishes in Iraq, not what is actually happening.
Iran's machinations in Iraq are extensive. On Jan 16, I noted that Sadr has enjoyed close support in the Shiite faction of the Iraqi government for some time. There was also a reference to a late 2007 American departure date, which has been a persistent theme from Maliki for almost a year:
Sadr, according to these reports, expects this [American withdrawal] to happen at the end of 2007. This date is worth noting, because Mowaffak al-Rubaie, Iraq's (Shiite) national security adviser, wrote over the summer in the Washington Post that Americans would be gone by 2007. Rubaie was replaced by Ayad Allawi in 2004 because Rubaie argued for a compromise with Sadr while Allawi wanted a more iron fist approach, the New York Times.In late January, the Washington Post reported that Sadr's followers were treated to medical care in Iran:
For more than two weeks last fall, Abbas, his sister and his mother were treated to free hotels, trips to the zoo and religious shrines, and his mother's $1,300 eye surgery at a hospital in Tehran, all courtesy of the offices of Moqtada al-Sadr, Iraq's ascendant Shiite Muslim cleric. Abbas returned to Najaf glowing over the technical prowess of Iran.After Sadr's battles with American forces in 2004, al Qaeda in Iraq offered Sadr a truce. He declined. Shortly thereafter, he joined the government and has been a Maliki-man, or is Maliki a Sadr-man, ever since. Or... are they Iran's men?
Interesting how that works.
George W. Bush insists that the Quds Force, of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard, is responsible for coalition deaths with sophisticated improvised explosive devices. However, he agreed with General Pace that there is no way to be certain how much control the Iranian government, at the highest levels, has had in these attacks.
The Los Angeles Times provides two anecdotes on the Quds Force. One shows them as the government's elite shock troops, the other as a band of sometimes problematic renegades:
Most notable, Pollack said, were the 1992 killings of an Iranian Kurdish separatist leader and three associates in Berlin by four gunmen led by an Iranian agent. In 1997, a German court found that the slayings had been ordered by a government committee in Tehran that included Khamenei and then-President Hashemi Rafsanjani.It now appears that the unnamed intelligence officials surpassed their mandate on Sunday, with a strong inference linking these devices to the Iranian government. Press coverage has portrayed President Bush as "walking back" from that assessment. The Los Angeles Times may explain how this inference came to be:
In 1998, for example, thousands of Guard troops gathered on the border with Afghanistan in what appeared to be a move against the Taliban regime. There was suspicion that the Revolutionary Guard was working independently. The government later sent conventional forces to "keep a watch" on the Guard, Pollack said.
Rather, Army Maj. Marty Weber said, the weapons were similar to those that the Iranian-backed Hezbollah militia used against Israeli forces during Israel's late-1990s occupation of southern Lebanon.The reference to Hezbollah type munitions is interesting. In late November a senior American intelligence official told the New York Times:
The link to Iran was based on "historical knowledge of these types of weapons, having first seen their use by an Iranian surrogate terrorist group in 1998," Weber said.
The Iranian government has denied that it is sending weapons to Iran to kill U.S. troops or seeking to stir up trouble in Iraq, which is run by longtime Shiite and Kurdish allies.
Asked what assurances he could give about the accuracy of the intelligence on the Iranian explosives, Bush said: "We know they're there. We know they're provided by the Quds Force. We know the Quds Force is a part of the Iranian government. I don't think we know who picked up the phone and said to the Quds Force, 'Go do this,' but we know it's a vital part of the Iranian government."
The official said that 1,000 to 2,000 fighters from the Mahdi Army and other Shiite militias had been trained by Hezbollah in Lebanon. A small number of Hezbollah operatives have also visited Iraq to help with training, the official said.Plausible deniability?
Iran has facilitated the link between Hezbollah and the Shiite militias in Iraq, the official said. Syrian officials have also cooperated, though there is debate about whether it has the blessing of the senior leaders in Syria.
As predicted by none other than John Bolton, the Bush administration may have some trouble with the new North Korea nuclear deal. The Los Angeles Times:
TEHRAN — Iran is quietly accelerating efforts to negotiate a deal on its nuclear program, using this week's agreement to freeze North Korea's program as a model.Iran has their own Sunni terrorist problem, in the south east near Afghanistan and Pakistan.
In the North Korea pact, the Bush administration signed a deal that provides significant incentives to Pyongyang even before the country completely steps back from its nuclear weapons program. The administration's willingness to agree to that probably will harden Iran's demands that it too should get tangible benefits as part of any agreement, analysts in Iran say.
Those rewards could include guarantees for the security of Iran's government, an end to economic sanctions and the right to continue developing nuclear technology for peaceful purposes.
At the same time, some hard-liners in Iran appear to want to use North Korea's example as an opportunity to toughen Tehran's demands in the expectation that the United States eventually will be obligated to meet them.
The Independent details Iran's trouble to the east:
A Sunni group calling itself the "soldiers of God", with alleged links to al-Qa'ida, has claimed responsibility for the bombing of a military bus in which at least 11 people were killed in a lawless region of Iran close to Pakistan and Afghanistan.Neither Pakistan nor Afghanistan seem capable of securing those border regions at this point.
The explosion yesterday spurred fears of ethnic and sectarian conflict in the mostly Shia Muslim country. Five men carried out the attack, using a car bomb that was detonated as the bus drove past. One was killed while the others escaped on motorbikes. Reports from the provincial capital, Zahedan, where the attack took place, said five men had been arrested.
The group, known by its Persian name Jundollah, shot dead 12 people last May on the Kerman to Bam highway in south-east Iran. Earlier, the group issued a video showing the execution of an Iranian officer. Other kidnapped soldiers have been beheaded.
Its leader, Abdolmalek Rigi, is a Baluchi, an ethnic group from the south-eastern corner of Iran.
Official figures put Iran's Sunni population at 9 per cent but some independent demographers say it is higher. Sunnis, including Kurds from the west, Turkomans from the north and Baluchis, find it difficult to reach high positions in the Islamic republic, where authority rests with Shia clerics.
Sporadic episodes of unrest in Arab and Kurdish areas to the west over the past three years have been rapidly quelled by the authorities, who fear they are being fuelled by British and US forces in the Middle East. Rights groups have protested against the execution of Arabs held to be responsible for a series of explosions in the south-west last year.
The arid plains and low mountain ranges of Sistan-Baluchistan make up a largely lawless region where bandits and drug smugglers fight pitched battles with Iranian soldiers. Porous borders and tribal ties often allow them to escape into Afghanistan or Pakistan.
In the neighbouring Pakistani province of Balochistan, secessionists have been carrying out attacks. Police have been killed and gas pipelines blown up. A US under-secretary of state, Nicholas Burns, said last month that the Afghan Taliban movement had set up training camps in the Pakistani province.
Since the 1979 revolution, more than 3,300 Iranian soldiers have been killed fighting heroin smugglers, who use Iran as a main route between Afghan poppy fields and Europe. The trade has fuelled a heroin epidemic in Iran, with the number of injecting users said to be more than 200,000.
Fourteen rockets posed quite a problem for a much needed reconstruction effort in Afghanistan. The rocket fire from Taliban insurgents lead USAid contractors to skedattle. The Times of London:
Royal Marine officers, whose men have been fighting the Taleban for weeks to push them back from the area of the dam, were clearly disappointed that the contractors were pulled out so hastily.Fixing bayonets to fight the other line
“Those rockets have a range of more than eight kilometres,” a commander said. “So if we clear the Taleban to that distance and next they use a heavy artillery piece, what then?”
USAid stipulated that a security zone with a radius of six kilometres (four miles) around the dam was cleared by the Marines before it brought in 50 Chinese engineers to the site in the first of a three-phase reconstruction plan. The Chinese are due to install a third turbine, a task that seems beset by difficulties. A team of security guards from USPI, the American company employed to protect the Chinese, was ambushed last week as it checked the turbine’s intended route towards Kajaki, suffering two casualties. USAid officials said last month they were confident that the Chinese would arrive at Kajaki by the end of February. They admitted yesterday that the schedule had shifted.
Robert Fisk, of the Independent, writes on the somewhat surprising lack of a civil war in Lebanon. Christians claim to hold Syrian agents responsible for the attack on two buses on Tuesday. Walid Jumblatt continues to spew hot rhetoric. Fisk notes some irony in the Hairi rally: "Samir Geagea, the Phalangist - a convicted murderer whose party now supports the elected government - was self-assured enough to tell his audience that 'we will pursue the criminals across the world and to the end of time'." And then points to the economic woes in Lebanon as the tit-for-tat stumbles onward.
I have the will to survive
The Kurds are hedging their bets. The Boston Globe:
Qubad Talabani , the Washington-based representative of the Kurdish Regional Government, said he has met with White House and State Department officials to seek a public US commitment to intervene in the event of an invasion of Iraqi Kurdistan by outsiders from elsewhere in Iraq or neighboring countries, but that so far he has received no official response.Based on the elder Talabani's history, this commitment would be a nice gesture to foster an Iranian counterweight. Perhaps the president cannot state that Kurdistan will be the fall-back position, but certainly someone can. The Los Angeles Times:
The remarks of Talabani, the son of Iraq's president Jalal Talabani, suggest that Iraq's peaceful Kurdish provinces are increasingly pessimistic about the prospects for a unified and stable Iraq. They also underscore a growing distrust of the United States among Iraqi Kurds, who say US officials have ignored or undermined their interests as Washington focuses on quelling the violence in Arab Sunni and Shi'ite areas.
Recent incidents, including a US military raid on Iranian diplomats in a Kurdish city, have further strained relations. Kurdish officials say they invited the Iranians to their region and dispute US assertions that the Iranians were involved in weapons smuggling at the time of their arrest.
Qubad Talabani said he plans to launch a major public relations campaign aimed at explaining to the American people why the United States should keep on protecting Kurdistan, even if US forces pull out of Iraq.
Iraqi President Jalal Talabani, a Kurd, once told The Times that he planned military operations against Hussein with Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Iran's controversial president.UPDATE 12:15: Reading the brillaint work of Nikolas Gvosdev, the Washington Realist, and Ray Takeyh at CFR reminded me that the Turks will not like Talabani's son on a PR tour in America for an even more autonomous Kurdistan.
UPDATE 16:10 EST: The Iraq Interior Ministry states that Iraqi Police killed al Qaeda in Iraq's number two and wounded al Masri, Abu Hamza al-Muhajerm, Zarqawi's successor, CNN.
Chad points out an important article on one of the weapons shipments into Iraq from Iran. The Telegraph reports:
Austrian sniper rifles that were exported to Iran have been discovered in the hands of Iraqi terrorists, The Daily Telegraph has learned.I have no doubt that Iran is supplying weapons to the Shiite militias. This would fit their m.o., look to Hezbollah, and is actually more likely based on Hezbollah's success in Lebanon. It is very likely that the IRG and the Quds Force are behind this, with some Hezbollah work as well. I am sure high-ranking, probably the highest ranking, Iranian officials know this is happening and either hinted that it should happen or explicitly ordered that this should happen.
More than 100 of the.50 calibre weapons, capable of penetrating body armour, have been discovered by American troops during raids.
However, the evidence is circumstantial. The intelligence presentation on Sunday was too bold in its inferences. Evidence for this is that the president now must clarify for his intelligence officials, and that GEN Peter Pace has been hectored on a trip around the world.
There are a few points which should not be forgotten in this coverage of Iran. First: there is a lot of Sunni money headed to the Sunni/Baath/Jihad insurgency in Iraq. Second: with insufficient American personnel and problematic Iraqi forces, the power vacuum in Iraq is encouraging entrance from both Sunni and Shiite neighbors -- they all seem to want a chunk of Iraq as a buffer from the other powers.
I fear we can anticipate that more Sunni money will head to that faction and more Shiite weapons will head to the militias.