How deep the Iranians are involved in the Iraqi Fighting?

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When the top American commander in the Gulf tells Congress that the Iraqi insurgency has not grown weaker over the past six months, despite a claim by Vice President Dick Cheney that it was in its ”last throes, we’d better trust that something is really going wrong out there…Something that has not been predicted –” at least not in these terms –” in the plans for war and forcing change. Gen. John Abizaid’s testimony came at a contentious Senate Armed Services Committee hearing at which Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld reportedly clashed with members of both parties, including a renewed call by Sen. Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts for him to step down.

Abizaid told the panel: ”I believe there are more foreign fighters coming into Iraq than there were six months ago.” As to the overall strength of the insurgency, Abizaid said it was ”about the same” as six months ago.

With the situation in Iraq worsening on the security level, and even going out of control either for the new government of M. Jaafari or for the American troops, the question about how far involved are the Iranians and what kind of involvement are they implicated with, deserves to be raised. Besides, it sounds that through Iraq (and about it), Washington and Tehran have settled themselves up to a fighting that has gone so far on the media, diplomatic and psychological levels. Yet, nothing may hinder it from evolving and hardening up in next days, if there is no progress in the situation of Iraq while the “deaf-dialogue” about the nuclear program goes on. Some little incidents push forward that dark picture. For example, according to some reports, in an effort to undercut Iran’s presidential election Friday, June 17, by a turnout, a new US-sponsored broadcasting station went on the air. Called Ahwaziya, it has been beaming programs directly from America to Iran calling on the ethnic Arabs of Khuzestan to boycott the vote as part of their revolt against the Islamic regime. The station ran a film exposing the damage their bombings had caused government buildings in Ahwaz, capital of the oil-rich province last Sunday, June 12. One of the slogans aired is: "Khuzestan is occupied land. Persians do not belong there." A special satellite relay facility brings the broadcasts to all parts of Iran. The Americans have also activated probably from some of their basis in the Gulf, four radio stations that speak for various Arab factions in Khuzestan and 12 Internet radio stations whose programs address the Balochi, Azeri, Kurdish, Bakhtiyari and Zoroastrian minorities of Iran with a call not to cast their ballots. And let us not omit that in a sharp election-eve statement, President George Bush condemned Iran as a state ruled by "men who suppress liberty at home and spread terror across the world."

Hence, one cannot help to state that even if the Iranians were as innocent as babies and remote from any involvement in the Iraqi fighting, the people in Washington around the President Bush do believe that they are guilty.

The question is: what are the grounds of such a hypothesis that apparently run against the widespread belief that the revolt is Sunnite?

Indeed, the role of the Sunnite pro-al Qaeda militiamen in the insurgency is beyond doubt. Yet, curiously enough, and in parallel with all that media concentration upon Al Zarqawi and the like, the role of the Iranians has gone almost unnoticed, although it is obvious that their influence has grown to an unimaginable degree in a country that had sustained an 8 years long war with Iran.

The fact is that nobody can today doubt of the Iranian presence in Iraq, on different levels. And let it be clear: the true problem is not related to the Shiite influence, or even to what some observers call somewhat viciously « Shiite revenge ». There are Shiite citizens in other Arab countries as well, and we should remind the reader that the Shiites had ruled over great parts of the arabo-islamic world, from North Africa westward to the Gulf, some centuries ago. There are still mosques and libraries and buildings and relics dating from the Middle Age in Tunisia and Egypt, which belong to the great Fatimide (Shiite) dynasty that succeeded to the Aghlabides, founded Mahdia (their capital in Tunisia) and expanded their kingdom to Egypt where the Caliph al Mu’iz li Din Allah al Fatimi founded Cairo. Thus, the greatest capital of the contemporary Arab world is a Shiite foundation.

What may be of a significant concern to the new Iraqi government is rather related to the kind of involvement Tehran has been viewing and planning for itself in post-Saddam Iraq. We say this with full knowledge and admittance of the spiritual ties between the Shiites, the political ties between some major actors in the Iraqi political spectrum and those who in Iran have helped and assisted them when they were harassed and hunted down by Saddam.

For one ought to acknowledge that much of the current imbroglio as well as the growing insecurity would ease itself out of the impasse if the relations with the neighbors were clearer. Additionally to that, it is obvious that the Iraqi insurgency –” what is labeled resistance- is not a totally internal matter. With the fighting and terrorist bombing going on, one may rightly assume that the fighters receive assistance from outside the country. The Sunnite terrorist network has extensions from Afghanistan and Pakistan to the Caucasus and the former Soviet-Union states. Some of those insurgents have also a plan to upset the situation in the Arab Gulf states, beginning from Saudi Arabia with the objective of extending their « guerilla » to the whole region. The question is here: who would be the beneficiary of such a plan?

Initially, this was an Iranian plan. When we remember the speeches of the Iranian revolutionary leaders since 1979 through 1988 (when the war with Iraq ended), we recall also how they were calling the peoples of the Arab Gulf states –” and the others – to arise against their governments. The first years of the Iranian revolution were indeed those of its exportation, and this was also the very cause behind the cautious but effective involvement of the Arab Gulf states, the USA and the Western states, in assisting Saddam’s war against Iran.

Today, Saddam is out of the game, but Iran is inside it, and maybe even making some advantages out of the mess in Iraq.

The dilemma of the ruling elite

Since the battle of Fallujah and the January 30th elections, there has been continuing sabotage of key targets like Iraq’s oil facilities, and a constant campaign of intimidation. Some observers note that a split between the Arab Shiites and the Kurds remain possible within the major factions of the elite in power. Yet, would such divisions be barred if the insurgency remains largely Sunni dominated? It would be an awful perspective if in order to keep the government united the terror operations should continue. Should the purpose of the current Government –” or anyone in the future –” be to help the country return to a normal life or to make of Iraq the frontline of the « shock of civilizations »? To give up the democracy step by step build up for a complete implication in a military process with the US supervision seems to be the turn Iraq would take if the insurgency continues. It is a dangerous turn, because the only justification for the war, from the Iraqi point of view as planned by the ex-opposition (which is today’s ruling elite), was to bring down the dictatorial regime and to replace it with a democracy. That is the only legitimacy the elite in power may claim while facing its enemies and rivals who accuse its elements to be the US pawns.

The dilemma is huge and complicated, for not only the new ruling elite has to fight for its own political survival, but also to justify rationally and convincingly its choices and to explain why the American troops are still in the country, and whether they are still a liberating force or an occupying one.

Assessing the role of the Sunni insurgents

About 35 Sunni Arab groups [1] have made some kind of public announcement of their existence, or claimed responsibility for terrorist or insurgent attacks. An overwhelming majority of those captured or killed have been Iraqi Sunnis, as well as something like 90-95 % of those detained. The main Sunni insurgent groups are concentrated in cities like Mosul and Baghdad; in Sunni-populated areas like the « Sunni Triangle », the Al Anbar Province to the west of Baghdad, and the so-called « Triangle of Death » to the southeast of Baghdad; and in Sunni areas near the Iraqi and Turkish borders. As a result, four of Iraq’s Provinces –” among 18 –” have both a major insurgency threat and a major insurgent presence. Yet, 4 out of 18 is not what we may call an « overwhelming threat ». The hubs of resistance are localized. Resistance may be ended with a huge and efficient military means if it were not using the cities and the villages full of innocent civilians as a shield. The tragedy of Fallujah as the world media has reported it is not encouraging to rehearsing in other places. The risk of a counter-insurgency slipping out of control towards gratuitous killings and feud is not totally absent. A lot of those terrorist operations are mere provocations appealing to such absurd involvements. The insurgents do know that they are unable to defeat the Americans by military means, but they hope to bring them down to an irregular fight, which is at once an attrition war and a guerilla (cities’ battles), in order to discredit the government that depends on such an assistance, if the American troops indulge in street’s fighting with its lot of gratuitous killings (collateral damage).

According to some reports, the Sunni are divided into a complex mix of Sunni nationalists, pro-Baath/ex-regime, Sunni Iraqi Islamists, outside Islamic extremists, foreign volunteers with no clear alignment, and paid or politically motivated criminals.

U.S. officials kept repeating estimates of total insurgent strengths of 5.000 from roughly the fall of 2003 through the summer of 2004. In October, they issued a range of 12.000 to 16.000 but have never defined how many are hard-core and full time, and how many are part time. [2] All estimates have a margin of guess and inaccuracy, as it is difficult to verify the validity of those « statistics ». Whatever the numbers advanced, we should always bear in mind that nobody –” no reliable institution –” has obtained the right estimates, because even the CIA has no means of knowing the real number of al Qaeda fighters and the other terrorists involved in the fighting. Neither Usama bin Laden nor any of his lieutenants kept a record of the « troops ». The Americans can probably count the detainees and the killed. Yet, how would they count those who are living and fighting or lurking in the dark? Besides, some of those groups (or cells) are still unknown or new. The overall estimates rely upon human intelligence, which is at once the most sensitive and the most deficient or efficient (according to the case).

In the spring of 2005, US officials estimated that there might be fewer than 1000 foreign fighters in Iraq or as many as 2000. Many felt the number flowing in across the Syrian border and other borders was so high the total was rapidly increasing. A few press estimates went as high as 10.000 before the fighting in Fallujah.

Verifying the part of the Iranians in the insurgency

Iraqi Arab Shiites resent the US presence, but they realize that within a secure new political system they would hold political dominance. Even a hard-core leader like Moqtada al Sadr cannot ignore the fact that the political process –” even if (and despite) it is monitored by the USA- is not oppressive to the Shiites. Thus, it has been remarked that the various battles and political compromises that led Sadr to turn away from armed struggle in the late fall and early winter of 2004 have changed the situation significantly [3]: US officials indicated that the number of attacks had dropped significantly to between zero and five a week in early 2005, and they remained at this level through May 2005.

By the late spring of 2005, the Mahdi army seemed to be the largest independent force in Basra played a major role in policing Amarah, and had effectively struck a bargain with the government police in Nasiriyah that allowed it to play a major role. Unlike most militias, it also seemingly has the support of some people inside the Shiite clergy.

The Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI) and the faction of Abdelaziz al Hakim also still have large militia elements. Al Da’wa, the Badr Corps, and the Iraqi Hezbollah also remain potential security problems, if not because the main ally of the new Iraqi government (the USA, that is) does not trust them, then because it is highly doubtful that we could speak of governance, of reconstruction of civil peace and democracy, with the presence of militias in the country. More to the point: what is exactly their legal status anyway? Does the law control them or do they act as if they have their own laws that have nothing to do with Iraq’s legislation? For if such is the case, what is the difference between Sunnite and Shiite militias as regards the law? We are told that the Sunnites are terrorists, because they refuse to abide by the law? Which one? The American or the Iraqi? And what about the Shiite militias? Is their activity controlled by the parties and the political organizations or by the State?

The main concern here is the fact nobody ignore about the ties some of these militias keep with Iran, since the time Iraqi Shiite political and religious leadership has taken refuge in Iran prior to Saddam’s downfall. But this is not all the story. Iran still keeps close ties with key political parties, including the Shiite-based United Iraqi Alliance (UIA) that emerged as Iraq’s most important political coalition in the January 2005 elections: SCIRI, al Da’wa and al Da’wa-Tanzim al Iraq.

Of course, one may say Iran has changed. But in fact, its record is a mixed one.[4]

On the one hand, it no longer actively seeks to export its religious revolution to other Islamic states. It reached a rapprochement with Saudi Arabia and the other Southern Gulf states in the late 1990s. It has since avoided further efforts to try to use the Pilgrimage to attack the Kingdom, or to exploit Shiite versus Sunni tensions in Saudi Arabia and other Gulf countries like Bahrain. Iran maintains an active presence in the Gulf, conducts large scale-exercises, and maintains an active intelligence and surveillance presence in both the Gulf and Neighboring states. It has avoided provocative military action, however, and there is no Evidence of active hostile attacks on Southern Gulf targets or US targets since the Al
Khobar bombings.

On the other hand, Iran no longer seems to be evolving towards a more moderate
and democratic regime, and this is probably not only because it is actively supporting the Hezbollah in Lebanon and hard-line groups like Hamas and the Palestine Islamic Jihad. Iran is also well aware that Sunni and Shiite tensions are rising throughout the Islamic world, driven in part by Salafi extremist and terrorist groups like Al Qaeda. Iran plays at least some role in the political instability in Iraq and may take a more aggressive role in trying to shape Iraq’s political future and security position in the Gulf. That’s the point!

Former Prime Minister Allawi repeatedly expressed his concern over Iran’s actions during 2004 and early 2005, as did other senior officials in the Interim Iraqi Government. What is the ground of such apprehension? For example, Iraqi Interim Defense Minister Hazem Shaalan claimed in July 2004 that Iran remained his country’s « first enemy », supporting « terrorism and bringing enemies into Iraq (…) Iran interferes in order to kill democracy ». In another declaration, Shaalan –” who is Shiite –” said that the Iranians « are fighting us because we want to build freedom and democracy, and they want to build an Islamic dictatorship and have turbaned clerics to rule Iraq ».[5]

The Iranian meddling was expected, though. As early as April 24, 2003, the Los Angeles Times wrote: « As Shiite Muslims in Iraq flexed their political muscle, the Bush administration said Wednesday that it had warned Iran’s fundamentalist Shiite government against interfering with its neighbor’s ‘road to democracy’… »

On May 28, Reuters quoted US administrator Paul Bremer as saying: « We have seen a rather steady increase in Iranian activity here, which is troubling…What you see at the most benign end of it is Iranian efforts to sort of repeat the formula which was used by Hezbollah in Lebanon. [That] is to send in people who are effectively guerillas and have them get in the country and try to set up social services and decide that these social services are their ticket to popularity. And then they start to arm themselves and you wind up with a serious problem if you let it go too far ».

No wonder! A month after the fall of Saddam’s regime, it has been reported, Tehran summoned all Ninth Badr Corps commanders and leaders of the Supreme Council for Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI). These meetings were held on Wednesday and Thursday, 21 and 22 May 2003, at the Qods Forces’ headquarters at the former US embassy in Tehran. A number of Badr commanders also attended special meetings with the commanders of the Qods Force and the Ramazan Garrison. After an initial assessment, Ali Khameinei –” Iran’s spiritual leader and the effective chief of the country –” received all Ninth Badr Corps commanders at his residential quarters to finalize the discussions.[6]

According to the same report, it was decided in the meeting that « the Ninth Badr Corps be organized based on the revolutionary Guards Corps Bassij format. Accordingly, the Ninth Badr Forces will set up cells in mosques in their regions and begin to recruit young and new forces from all regions. In light of problems raised by the Badr Corps commanders, the Qods Force pledged to provide logistic support to it. Salaries for all Ninth Badr personnel were approved for two years and no personnel would be forced in to early retirement. The Revolutionary Guards and the Bassij pledged to share their experiences with the Ninth Badr Corps in a series of political briefings… »[7]

The US top officials were not late to react. « US national security adviser Condoleezza Rice took tough aim at Iran on Thursday, warning them to halt any illicit weapons programs », reported France Press.[8] « We cannot tolerate circumstances in which Iran, with a different vision of what Iraq ought to look like, tries to stir trouble in southern Iraq », she told the Town Hall speakers’ forum in Los Angeles. Rice also cautioned Tehran to crack down on any international terrorists and stop them from passing through Iran.

The independent Inter Press Service reported on 4 July that Tehran had offered $200 to $ 300 to young Iraqis clerics to go on six to nine month missions to Iraq and promote its policies.[9] According to Ali Behbehani, an Iraqi Shiite who fled with his family to Iran in the 1980s and returned after the Baath’s downfall, the program was started in June by the International Centre for Islamic Studies at Qom, which is home to about 500 Iraqi students and about 2000 international pupils from Afghanistan, Pakistan, India, Europe, and the United States.

Some remaining questions

So, at last what would we make of all this? Is Iran involved or not in the insurgency? Some Western observers do not acknowledge such a part, because they do not see a clear major effort to destabilize the country. Yet, we do not see the evidence of the Iranian abstention either. The point is that with the Sunnite factions (followers of Zarqawi) occupying the field on the military and media levels, although the regions of trouble concerned with their activity are much smaller than the rest of the Provinces, the observers know little about the Shiite inspired activism. The media are most often concerned with Al Qaeda and al Ansar. How much important are they effectively? Does it require hundreds of men to make a bomb or put it under a car? We know that if terrorism is actually the weapon of the coward, it is also that of the weaker. And if many observers seem very concerned about Sunnite inspired terrorism, is it really because all the terrorist threats are planned and carried out by Sunnite cells, or rather because the Sunnite are nowadays the minority in Iraq, which make of them the first suspect? What about those parties interested in setting up an Islamic republic –” which would be a copy of Iran since the majority of Iraqis, are Shiites? Do they really want a peaceful political process that would lead them out of the game for the next years? Is it that hard to put a bomb under a car and to make someone claim that it is Zarqawi’s action or one related to the Sunnites? And if the latter do not deny, is it not because they deem it « glorious » to fight the US supported regime besides making themselves dreadful?

Notes:

[1]. Many of these « groups » may be little more than cells and some may be efforts to shift the blame for the attacks or make the insurgent movement seem larger than it is.

[2]. We rely on the statistics reported by Anthony H. Cordesman, Center For Strategic and International Studies (CSIS): Iraq’s Evolving Insurgency; May 19, 2005.

[3]. The Mahdi army presented a serious threat to Coalition and government forces in Najaf, in Sadr City in Baghdad, and in other Shiite areas in the south during much of the summer and early fall of 2004. US officials indicated that US forces faced up to 160 attacks per week in Sadr City between August and September 2004.

[4]. Anthony H. Cordesman , Arleigh A. Burke Chair: Iran’s Developing Military Capabilities, December 8, 2004. CSIS.

[5]. Iran in Iraq: How Much Influence? Crisis Group Middle East Report, n° 38, March 21, 2005.

[6]. Mohammad Mohaddessin, Enemies of the Ayatollahs, Zed Books, London-New York, 2004. Pp159-160.

[7]. Idem.

[8]. France Press, June 12, 2003.

[9]. Reported by M. Mohaddessin; op. Cit. P162

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