Peter Beaumont, Paul Harris, and Robert Tait / The Observer – 2007-01-13 23:40:55
LONDON, NEW YORK & TEHRAN ( January 14, 2007) — Baghdad’s Residency Office, a bustling maze of corridors and smoky rooms, is a place of Kafkaesque bureaucracy.
Controlled by a Shia political party, it means foreigners who do not want to pay a bribe shuffle from desk to desk to get the signatures, stamps and counter signatures, and then more stamps, required to leave the country. Only one group is rushed through without a cursory glance: agents who breeze through with arms laden with stacks of passports. All of them from Iran.
Some are pilgrims to Shia holy sites whom you see streaming across the Shatt al-Arab waterway in the heavily laden ferries at festival time and plying the motorways in packed minibuses. Others are returning exiles, many of whose families hold only Iranian passports. Others are diplomats and businessmen.
But in the past few months, George W Bush, has signed a presidential order targeting another group that his administration alleges is in Iraq: Iranians – Revolutionary Guards and intelligence officers. Iran, the Shia state, is destabilising Iraqi politics and co-ordinating attacks on US forces by Shia insurgents, claim the Americans.
The claims are not new. Throughout last year, officials dropped heavy hints about the presence of Revolutionary Guards in Iraq, although usually without evidence to support the claims. What has changed in the past few days is that rumours have been translated into public accusations in Washington, amid moves by the US military to break up what it alleges are ‘Iranian networks’ in Iraq. This time administration officials claim they have evidence.
Last week, US troops in helicopters launched a raid on an Iranian facility in Kurdistan -claiming afterwards that they had arrested a high-ranking Revolutionary Guard officer among six Iranians seized and found maps of neighbourhoods in Baghdad in which Sunnis ‘could be’ evicted. US officials also claimed they had found proof there of Iranian involvement in last summer’s conflict in Lebanon. None of this ‘evidence’ has yet been produced for public scrutiny.
After last Wednesday’s dramatic announcement by Bush of the immediate raising of US troop numbers in Iraq by more than 20,000 – the much heralded ‘surge’ which is widely recognised as the last chance to rescue the mission to enforce stability on conflict-torn Iraq – the question is being increasingly asked in Washington and the region: what comes next?
Many believe that Bush has planned a second – equally high risk – strategy to run in parallel with the surge: to move against growing Iranian influence in Iraq, snubbing the key recommendation of the Iraq Study Group and the will of the British government that it should talk to Tehran, not threaten it.
It is high-risk, because it is in danger of alienating precisely those Shia politicians in the Iraqi government who can help to stabilise Baghdad, many of whom were protected by Iran during Saddam’s reign, and who look to Tehran, not Washington, as their most obvious ally.
That ratcheting up of pressure on Iran is getting more visible by the day even if the new US Defence Secretary, Robert Gates, insisted to Congress last week under fierce questioning that US troops would not touch Iranian soil. That may be the case. But in February, a second US carrier strike force, accompanying the USS John C Stennis, will arrive in the Gulf to join the carrier the USS Eisenhower, and its group, in a marked new show of force. Extra US F-16 fighter planes also have reportedly flown into Turkey too, ostensibly for a joint war game.
There is talk too of extra Patriot anti-missile batteries being deployed by the US in the Middle East.
But it is in Iraq that the pressure is most directly being applied with two raids in a handful of days against Iranian officials that the Iraqi government has insisted were in the country at its invitation.
What is clear is the US intention. In a newspaper interview on Friday, US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice revealed that Bush had decided to undertake a broad military offensive against Iranian operatives in Iraq. ‘There has been a decision to go after these networks,’ Rice said, adding that Bush had decided to act ‘after a period of time in which we saw increasing activity’ among Iranians in Iraq, ‘and increasing lethality in what they were producing’.
What Rice was referring too is what US soldiers call EFPs – Explosively Formed Penetrators – the increasingly lethal armour piercing roadside projectiles that have become one of the biggest killers of American troops.
While it is true that the sophisticated plugs of machine-pressed steel and copper that US military intelligence officials believe arrive in Baghdad in kit form for assembly, are being produced in someone’s factory, what is not so certain is where it is. Indeed, there is strong evidence that many are produced locally. Questions have also been raised over the widespread claims by senior British and US officers that the devices are being smuggled from Iran. British troops patrolling the border last autumn insisted to several journalists that in months of patrolling they had found no evidence of the devices coming across.
A second long-term accusation by the US is of a more generalised Iranian ‘meddling’ in Iraq, charging that Tehran is providing weapons and training to Shia forces. Again, the evidence is deeply contradictory. British officials have described a far more complex picture of Iran’s attitude towards Iraq, insisting that while Tehran has taken some pleasure in ‘poking’ Washington via Iraq, and is happy that US military might is bogged down there rather than attacking its nuclear and air defence facilities, it has no desire at all to see a ‘failed state’ on its border, or the kind of bloodletting between Shia and Sunni that might draw it into a confrontation with Saudi Arabia.
But there do exist more worrying indicators. The firebrand preacher Moqtada al-Sadr, to whom the violently sectarian Mahdi Army’s death squads are loyal, visited Tehran a year ago and met senior officials, including Ali Larijani, Iran’s chief nuclear negotiator. The idea too of the Iranians inspiring ‘managed chaos’ to raise the price of the American occupation is, at least, believable. Indeed, Iran’s President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad offered recently to help the Americans out of the quagmire in Iraq on condition that they promise to withdraw.
But there is another crucial issue – of perception. For what America sees as ‘evidence’ of Iranian meddling, including the presence of numbers of Iranian officials, in Iraq, is not quite so obvious viewed from the perspective of Iraq’s Shia political parties, many of whose senior figures lived for two decades and more in exile in Iran, and look to its powerful Shia neighbour as both a friend and a religious and political exemplar in the midst of crisis. Iraq’s most senior Shia cleric was born in Iran – although he rejects the role of the clerics in the Iranian state.
Many of the returning ‘Iranians’, as Iraqis who stayed under Saddam have dubbed the returning exiles, speak Farsi as comfortably as Arabic and when they want a break from the violence they holiday in villas in Iran.
Seen from this point of view, many Shias would argue, it is the Americans who are meddling, not their Iranian ‘brothers’. [Calling a spade a spade!]
Which brings the growing confrontation with Iran in Iraq down to a more fundamental issue: a straight competition for influence in the Middle East between the US and the growing power of Iran highlighted in last week’s ‘National Intelligence Estimate’ by director of national intelligence John Negroponte. Rice’s willingness to discuss the issue so openly reflects a new hostility to Iran that was first evident in Bush’s speech to the nation last week, in which he accused Tehran of providing material support for attacks on American troops and vowed to respond.
The reality is that the policy of turning the screw on Iran is being driven by Washington’s wider regional concerns. Israel’s Prime Minister Ehud Olmert has warned that Iran’s nuclear programme will be critical over the next 12 months and officials have hinted broadly that Israel might attack Iran unilaterally if the US does not act.
The failure of Israel to disarm and destroy Iran’s ally Hizbollah in Lebanon last year has also resulted in a resurgent Hizbollah, which is demanding a more dominant role in its country’s governance and threatening to collapse the government of Fouad Siniora.
The Democrat-controlled Congress is scornful of the way in which Bush rejected the recommendations of the Iraq Study Group to continue ploughing his own increasingly lonely furrow.
So far the 21,500-strong surge in US troops has been met with little warmth by the US public and bipartisan scepticism. Already in response to the US raids on Iranian targets, Democrat Senator Joe Biden – mulling a 2008 presidential run – issued a public rebuke to the White House, demanding to know the legality of targeting Iranian networks, especially if that leads to any action that crosses the Iraqi border and goes into Iran. ‘That,’ he warned, ‘will generate a constitutional confrontation here in the Senate.’
It is, however, some of the Republican comments about the plan that has many White House officials unnerved. The party is clearly splitting on the issue between those politicians nervous of their own political careers and a tight coterie of officials around Bush concerned only with their legacy. Now it is the focus on Iran that is causing even greater concern as it has emerged that the US is seeking to directly confront Iranian influence in Iraq as part of a deliberate strategy hatched privately in the White House.
The focus on Iranian influence in Iraq is a reflection of the power that hawkish neo-conservative figures still have on foreign policy in the Bush administration. The Iraq Study Group’s suggested reach out to Iran was derided by neocons who want regime overthrow to be the White House’s aims. But it is a policy that is very hard to sell. White House spokesman Tony Snow was forced to deny as an ‘urban legend’ the idea that the US planned to invade Iran.
Which leaves Bush desperately trying to sell two deeply unpopular new strategies. Today he will appear on the CBS 60 Minutes TV show. At the same time Vice President Dick Cheney will be defending the new increase in troops on Fox News Sunday
Meanwhile, Condoleezza Rice embarked on a fresh effort to revive Israeli-Palestinian peace talks yesterday but said she would not present any concrete new initiative. ‘I’m not coming with a proposal. I’m not coming with a plan,’ she said on her way to Israel.
US officials have sought to play down expectations for the trip, Rice’s eighth to the region during her two years as Secretary of State, and have suggested she is testing the waters to see what might be possible.
The tone of their new offensive was set yesterday as Bush used his weekly radio address to attack those opposing his strategy as empty of ideas of their own. ‘To oppose everything while proposing nothing is irresponsible,’ Bush said. He went on to defend his plan as empowering Iraqis. ‘We have a new strategy with a new mission: Helping secure the population, especially in Baghdad,’ Bush said ‘Our plan puts Iraqis in the lead.’
Will the Surge Work?
Q: What is the new strategy on Iraq and why is it controversial?
A: President Bush announced last week he would send 21,500 extra troops into Iraq. In doing so he rejected a range of exit strategies offered to him by cross-party military and political figures.
Q: Who backs him?
A: Not that many in a nation weary of a war soon to enter its fourth year. Neither Republicans nor Democrats want Iraq to figure as an issue in the 2008 presidential elections. Britain gave only qualified backing to the plan.
Q: Will the ‘surge’ strategy work?
A: The odds are stacked against it. An increase in US military activity will probably be matched by an increase in attacks by insurgents. Escalation of the violence and inflaming sectarian divides seem the likely outcome.
Q: Does the Iraqi government support the plan?
A: Prime Minister Maliki was pressured into supporting the surge, which will see increased targeting of Shia militias. The Mahdi Army is headed by Maliki’s key political backer, cleric Muqtada al-Sadr.
Guardian Unlimited © Guardian News and Media Limited 2007
Posted in accordance with Title 17, US Code, for noncommercial, educational purposes.