Chicago Tribune: U.S. military officials are voicing increasing concern that Iranian-backed Shiite militants are stepping up their activities in Iraq, as Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad prepares to make a historic visit to Baghdad that is expected to reinforce Iran’s expanding influence. The Chicago Tribune
By Liz Sly | Tribune correspondent
BAGHDAD U.S. military officials are voicing increasing concern that Iranian-backed Shiite militants are stepping up their activities in Iraq, as Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad prepares to make a historic visit to Baghdad that is expected to reinforce Iran’s expanding influence.
The U.S. military refers to the shadowy, cell-like structures operated by Shiite extremists as Special Groups and says their precise relationship with Iran’s government isn’t clear. The U.S. military is certain, however, that they receive arms, training and funding from the Quds Force, the elite and secretive foreign-operations wing of Iran’s powerful Revolutionary Guard Corps.
“We don’t assess necessarily that the central government of Iran is behind this but we are certain there are elements, including the Quds Force, who continue to train, finance and equip these people,” said senior military spokesman Rear Adm. Gregory Smith.
Recent U.S. discoveries of Iranian weapons caches have fueled suspicions that Iran is continuing to funnel weapons to the militants, though the U.S. military has not intercepted any weapons crossing the border.
U.S. officials had hoped that a commitment by Iran, made during a series of unprecedented talks last year between the U.S. and Iranian ambassadors in Baghdad, would reduce Iranian interference in Iraq. But, although violence has sharply fallen in most parts of Iraq, Iran does not appear to have curtailed its activities, officials say.
“They send Iraqis in [to Iran”> and put them back on the border like wind-up toys. They’re out there roaming around with all this training behind them and they’re very lethal,” said Smith.
Iraq visit is a first
The spotlight will be on Iran’s role in Iraq when Ahmadinejad visits Baghdad on Sunday, the first visit to Iraq by a leader of the Islamic Republic. Iran and Iraq fought a bitter eight-year war in the 1980s, and the visit underscores the extent to which Iran has emerged as a key player in the affairs of its former foe.
U.S. officials will be watching closely.
“What we’re interested in is the substance of the visit and what it is that President Ahmadinejad can say to Iraqis about what he and his government and his country will do to help Iraq with security,” U.S. Embassy spokesman Phillip Reeker told reporters this week.
Just as likely, however, are triumphalist statements like the ones Ahmadinejad made Thursday, in which he declared “Iran is the No. 1 power in the world.”
“Today the name of Iran means a firm punch in the teeth of the powerful, and it puts them in their place,” Ahmadinejad told relatives of victims of the Iran-Iraq war.
Whether Ahmadinejad has direct knowledge of the activities of the Shiite cells operating under Quds Force tutelage is something the U.S. military doesn’t know. U.S. officials have been trumpeting Iranian involvement in fueling Iraq’s violence for more than a year, but they have repeatedly stopped short of directly blaming Tehran.
The Iranian government is so secretive, compartmentalized and faction-ridden that it is likely it has no direct knowledge of the Quds Force activities, said Babak Rahimi, a U.S. academic researching in Tehran. It is unlikely, though not implausible, that even Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, under whose auspices the Quds Force was founded, wouldn’t know, said Rahimi, who is an assistant professor of Iranian and Islamic studies at the University of California at San Diego.
The goal, U.S. officials say, appears to be to establish a proxy militia network modeled on the highly disciplined Shiite Lebanese Hezbollah movement, which was created by the Quds Force in Lebanon in the wake of Israel’s occupation of Lebanon in the early 1980s and which was responsible for a string of terrorist attacks and kidnappings against U.S. targets there.
American military officials believe that Imad Mughniyeh, the Hezbollah operative killed in a car bombing in Damascus, Syria, this month, played a role in setting up the Iraqi network. Information provided by a captured senior Lebanese Hezbollah operative, Ali Musa Duqduq, pointed to an extensive Hezbollah role in organizing and training the Iraqi Shiite groups.
A militia to retaliate
One of Iran’s purposes is to build up a structured militia that will be capable of retaliating against the U.S. on Iran’s behalf should the U.S. or Israel attack Iranian nuclear facilities, something that remains a deep concern in Tehran, Rahimi said.
The Special Groups’ signature activities include the notoriously lethal roadside bombs known as explosively formed penetrators, which were formulated by Hezbollah during its fight against occupying Israeli forces in the 1990s. Several recent rocket attacks against U.S. facilities have involved Katyusha rockets, according to U.S. military officials, suggesting the Special Groups have been trained in the use of the rocket systems used by Hezbollah in its 2006 war with Israel.
Until now, the Special Groups have focused their attacks mainly on U.S. forces, but the Iraqi National Intelligence Service this week warned that Iranian agents are planning to stage attacks against the U.S.-allied Sunni Awakening movement, which has been instrumental in driving Al Qaeda in Iraq out of many strongholds.
“Iranian military intelligence services have dispatched agents to sabotage the Awakening Councils all over Iraq,” said intelligence chief Mohammed Abdullah al-Shahwani.
The Iranian effort is most pervasive across southern Iraq, where Iran’s operatives have established a broad network of local Iraqi recruits who were instrumental in driving British troops out of Basra, said Martin Navias, of the Center for Defense Studies at Kings College London. The Iranians appear to be “building up a whole range of Shiite groups,” he said.
U.S. officials still identify Al Qaeda in Iraq as the most dangerous threat to Iraq’s stability. But Al Qaeda has been driven out of many areas, and its influence is on the wane. Should a disciplined and powerful Hezbollah-like force emerge in Iraq, “the Shiite groups could potentially be the most lethal long-term threat to Iraq,” Smith said.