Amid push to stabilize Iraq, US seeks to curb influence of Tehran throughout region.
Washington – Even as President Bush seeks larger numbers of troops to stabilize Iraq, the Pentagon is intensifying operations there on another front: challenging Iran over its alleged role in destabilizing its Arab neighbor.
Yesterday, multinational forces including U.S. troops detained six Iranian officials in Iraqi Kurdistan suspected of aiding Shiite Muslim militants in Iraq. It was the second detainment by U.S.-led forces of Iranian officials in Iraq in less than a month. The U.S. and its allies have also sought to seal off Iranâ€™s ability to penetrate Iraq and ship arms there, with British forces stepping up patrols along the Iran-Iraq border and U.S. warships and aircraft carriers increasing patrols in the Persian Gulf. Mr. Bush, in his speech to the nation Wednesday, announced the deployment of a second aircraft-carrier battle group to patrol the Gulf.
And the Pentagon has significantly increased its intelligence activities targeting suspected Iranian agents and Shiite Muslim militants, U.S. intelligence officials said. Besides working with Iraqi security forces, the U.S. has intensified information-sharing with dissident Iranian groups such as Mujahedin-e Khalq, according to officials associated with the group.
U.S. officials say the intensifying actions targeting Iran are central to the new White House push to underpin the shaky government of Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. They come against a backdrop of growing, broader tensions between Washington and Tehran, over Iranâ€™s suspected pursuit of nuclear weapons, U.S. efforts to curb Iranâ€™s financial transactions and Tehranâ€™s moves to increase its influence throughout the Middle East.
Nicholas Burns, undersecretary of state for political affairs, said the administration is seeking to counter Iranian provocations across the region as part of a broader strategy. â€œIran needs to learn to respect us,â€ he said. â€œAnd Iran certainly needs to respect American power in the Middle East.â€
Some U.S. lawmakers and many Arab officials fear the U.S.â€™s latest tactics could stoke a broader regional conflict.
A number of Democratic and Republican lawmakers yesterday drew analogies to the Vietnam War, when American military activities secretly moved into neighboring Cambodia and Laos from Vietnam. These lawmakers said U.S. efforts to target insurgents and alleged Iranian agents in Iraq could spill over into Iran and Syria, and potentially spark wider, sectarian conflicts between Sunni and Shiite Muslims around the region.
â€œWhen you set in motion the kind of policy that the president is talking about here, itâ€™s very, very dangerous,â€ said Sen. Chuck Hagel, a Republican from Nebraska and a Vietnam veteran.
Mr. Bush Wednesday hinted at a significant hardening of policy toward Iran and Syria, saying the U.S. â€œwill seek out and destroy the networks providing advanced training and weaponry to our enemies in Iraq.â€ Mr. Bush and other U.S. officials have regularly accused Iran and Syria of arming and funding militants fighting in Iraq, charges both countries deny.
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice pushed an even-harder line toward Tehran yesterday. Washington â€œwill continue to work with the Iraqis and use all our power to limit and counter activities of Iranian agents who are attacking our people and innocent civilians in Iraq,â€ she said.
The White Houseâ€™s emerging policy on Iranâ€™s role in Iraq directly counters recommendations made last month by the bipartisan Iraq Study Group. The congressionally funded group, headed by former U.S. Secretary of State James Baker and former Democratic Rep. Lee Hamilton, had recommended that the U.S. directly engage Tehran and Damascus to build a regional consensus on how to stabilize Iraq.
Bush administration officials working on Middle East policy said the White Houseâ€™s moves to confront Tehran directly in Iraq predates the ISG study, having been in development for nearly six months. From the earliest days of the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2003, Pentagon officials have voiced fears that Iran was using the fall of Saddam Hussein to increase its influence among Iraqi Shiites, who constitute a majority in the country but had lived under Sunni Muslim rule for decades prior to Mr. Husseinâ€™s fall.
And U.S. intelligence officials said that during the past year, they have noticed a significant increase of munitions and designs for the construction of improvised explosive devices, or IEDs, coming across the Iranian border. IEDs are the largest killers of U.S. soldiers in Iraq, according to the Pentagon.
Of particular concern to Pentagon planners is the alleged role of Qods Force, the international arm of Tehranâ€™s Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps, in trafficking IEDs into Iraq, intelligence officials said. The guard corps is believed to have developed close ties to both the Mahdi Army, a Shiite militia headed by the Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, and the Badr Brigade, the militant arm of Iraqâ€™s largest Shiite political party, the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq.
The Pentagon moves in Iraq to arrest Iranian diplomats in both Irbil and Baghdad over the past month were directly aimed at trying to stanch the flow of IEDs and other armaments into Iraq, U.S. officials involved in the program said. The U.S. has alleged that the Revolutionary Guard corps has used front companies and religious foundations to move some of these armaments over the Iran-Iraq border. And U.S. officials said they have extensive intelligence showing many of the diplomats detained were senior members of the corps.
The Iranian government immediately protested the U.S. moves, while Iraqi and Kurdish officials asked the U.S. to show restraint in confronting Iran. Baghdad views Tehran as an increasingly important economic partner and crucial to its internal stability. â€œSometimes we pay the price for the tension in relations between Iran and the U.S. and Syria,â€ said Iraqi government spokesman Ali al-Dabbagh, according to the Associated Press.
Aside from escalating strains between the U.S. and Iran, Middle East analysts said Mr. Bushâ€™s new Iraq strategy – such as adding more than 10,000 troops in Baghdad – will inevitably increase tensions between American forces and the Mahdi Army, which controls much of the Iraqi capital, and that an escalation in fighting could turn Iraqâ€™s Shiite majority even further against the U.S.
Of more concern to U.S. lawmakers is the potential that these U.S. actions against Iran could escalate. Under one possible scenario, U.S. forces could cross into Iran or Syria in pursuit of suspected insurgents or their allies, or use alleged Iranian activities inside Iraq as a pretext for a wider assault on Iran. The fear is that any such military activities could ignite a wider conflict.
â€œThe potential for sparking a wider conflict is great,â€ said Trita Parsi, an Iran analyst and president of the National Iranian American Council in Washington. â€œI think that if weâ€™re going for a confrontation with Iran, the pretext will be Iraq.â€