News On Iran & Its NeighboursIraqAmbassador skeptical of Iran's plan for Iraq

Ambassador skeptical of Iran’s plan for Iraq

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Los Angeles Times: The U.S. ambassador expressed wariness Sunday about Iranian intentions in Iraq, saying that even if Iran-backed militias had decreased activities here, he was not yet convinced the Islamic state was committed to helping stabilize Iraq. The Los Angeles Times

American Ryan Crocker says he’s not convinced that Tehran is committed to helping stabilize its neighbor.

By Tina Susman, Los Angeles Times Staff Writer

BAGHDAD — The U.S. ambassador expressed wariness Sunday about Iranian intentions in Iraq, saying that even if Iran-backed militias had decreased activities here, he was not yet convinced the Islamic state was committed to helping stabilize Iraq.

U.S. military officials have cited the recent drop in roadside bombs and mortar and rocket attacks as a sign that Iran, which Washington accuses of fomenting unrest in Iraq, is altering its behavior. Most have said they remain in “wait-and-see” mode to determine whether the shift represents a firm policy change.

Ambassador Ryan Crocker said he wasn’t swayed yet. “Is it a conscious policy decision on the part of the Iranian government to use all its influence to bring these things down?” he said, referring to violent incidents. “Or does it involve the Iranians saying, ‘Let’s throttle it back, get everyone comfortable, and then put the pedal down again?’ “

Crocker made his comments to foreign journalists during a wide-ranging briefing, which came as Iraq, the United States and Iran tried to set a date for a fourth round of talks on Iraqi security. Previous meetings have done little to improve icy U.S.-Iranian relations. Iran denies Washington’s claims that it has orchestrated the smuggling of sophisticated bombs and other weapons to anti-U.S. Shiite militias in Iraq.

U.S. military officials say the number of such bombs being detonated and discovered has dropped significantly since summer. Crocker noted, however, that they continue, and he cited the assassination this month of a U.S.-allied provincial police commander. Crocker said the explosive used in the attack had the sophistication of those linked to Iranian manufacturing.

Referring to the decline in such attacks, Crocker said, “If it’s a case of the Iranians moving down a road of using influence to reduce rather than foment violence, that is a good thing.” But he added, “They would still in our view clearly have some way to go.”

Crocker also said he assumed that “very senior” officials in Tehran were behind whatever decisions were being made about increasing or decreasing unrest in Iraq.

Looking ahead to 2008, Crocker said one of the most crucial tasks facing the Iraqi government was finding jobs for the tens of thousands of volunteer security workers known as concerned local citizens. The citizens, who are paid about $10 per day, work alongside U.S. and Iraqi security forces against insurgents. The United States credits them with helping turn around violence in much of the country, particularly in mainly Sunni Muslim areas where the Shiite-dominated Iraqi police are in short supply.

On “Fox News Sunday,” Gen. David H. Petraeus, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, noted, “All of us, Iraqi and coalition alike, want to see these neighborhood watch organizations, so-called concerned local citizens . . . incorporated into the legitimate Iraqi security forces.”

But only 20% to 25% of the estimated 70,000 volunteers can be absorbed into the security force. How to incorporate the rest into state jobs is one of the challenges ahead. Crocker said Prime Minister Nouri Maliki’s Shiite-led government had agreed to match $155 million in U.S. funds for job-creation programs for the others. This would include vocational training and educational programs.

The Iraqi government has been slow to embrace the idea of the volunteers, saying they could form militias once U.S. forces are no longer around to oversee them. But the United States says the key to preventing this is to ensure them jobs.

On Sunday, festivities marking the Muslim holiday Eid al-Adha continued, and the country was relatively peaceful. One bomb exploded in Zafaraniya in southeast Baghdad, killing a man and a woman and injuring two other people.

For the second day in a row and the third time since Dec. 16, Turkey launched airstrikes against Kurdish rebels in northern Iraq, targeting the separatist Kurdistan Workers Party, or PKK, which seeks sanctuary in the mountainous border region between the two countries.

Jabbar Yawir, deputy regional minister in charge of the peshmerga security forces in Iraqi Kurdistan, said there were no civilian casualties.

The PKK, which the U.S. and Turkey consider a terrorist group, has fought the Turkish government since 1984 for a separate Kurdish state.

The U.S. has held that Turkey has the right to defend itself, but is concerned about increased instability in Iraq, a position Crocker reiterated Sunday.

In particular, Crocker cited the Dec. 16 raids, which hit villages 50 miles inside Iraq and which local officials say killed at least one civilian and sent hundreds fleeing.

Crocker added, however, that the rebels needed to be stopped from attacking Turkey.

Turkey, Iraq, the semiautonomous Kurdistan regional government and the United States all “have a pretty substantial interest in the stability of Iraq,” Crocker said.

[email protected]

Times staff writer Kimi Yoshino in Baghdad, special correspondent Asso Ahmed in Sulaymaniya and special correspondents in Baghdad contributed to this report.

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