News On Iran & Its NeighboursIraqIran fighting proxy war in Iraq, U.S. envoy says

Iran fighting proxy war in Iraq, U.S. envoy says


New York Times: Iran is engaging in a proxy war with the United States in Iraq, adopting tactics similar to those it has used to back fighters in Lebanon, the United States ambassador to Iraq said Friday. The New York Times

Published: April 12, 2008

WASHINGTON — Iran is engaging in a proxy war with the United States in Iraq, adopting tactics similar to those it has used to back fighters in Lebanon, the United States ambassador to Iraq said Friday.

The remarks by the ambassador, Ryan C. Crocker, reflected the sharper criticism of Iran by President Bush and his top deputies over the past week, as administration officials have sought to trace many of their troubles in Iraq to Iran.

Mr. Crocker said in an interview that there had been no substantive change in Iranian behavior in Iraq, despite more than a year of talks between the Bush administration and Iran over how to calm Shiite-Sunni tensions in Iraq. He said that the paramilitary branch of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps was continuing to direct attacks by Shiite militias against American and Iraqi targets, although he offered no direct evidence.

Asked if the United States and Iran were engaged in a proxy war in Iraq, Mr. Crocker said, “I don’t think a proxy war is being waged from an American point of view.” But, he added, “When you look at what the Iranians are doing and how they’re doing it, it could well be that.”

While Bush administration officials have long denounced what they have described as Iran’s meddling in Iraq, Mr. Crocker’s language was unusually strong, reflecting fresh concern about what he described in Congressional testimony this week as Iran’s role in supplying militias with training and weapons, including rockets used in recent attacks on the Green Zone, in Baghdad.

The Bush administration is trying to exploit any crack it can find between the largely Shiite, pro-Iranian government of the Iraqi prime minister, Nuri Kamal al-Maliki, and Iran’s Shiite government. On Friday, Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates said that Iran’s role in supporting radical Shiite militias in recent clashes with Iraqi security forces had been an “eye-opener” for the central government in Baghdad.

“I think that there is some sense of an increased level of supply of weapons and support to these groups,” Mr. Gates said. “I would say one of the salutary effects of what Prime Minister Maliki did in Basra is that I think the Iraqi government now has a clearer view of the malign impact of Iran’s activities inside Iraq.”

From Mr. Bush down, administration officials this week have been turning up the volume on Iran. Administration officials said that Iranian support for Shiite militias became increasingly evident late last month during the indecisive Iraqi operation to wrest control of Basra from Shiite militias, in addition to the rocket attacks on the Green Zone.

Administration officials have long accused Iran of supporting Shiite militias in attacks on American forces in Iraq. The difference now is that administration officials are trying to convince the Iraqi government that Iran may not be the ally it thought, and is behind attacks against Iraqi government forces. That is a harder sell, given that Iran has supported Iraq’s government.

Mr. Bush this week accused Iran of arming, financing and training what he called “illegal militant groups.” He said that Iran had a choice, and hinted that the United States would try to sow distrust between the governments of Iran and Iraq, if Iran did not stop backing the attacks.

“If Iran makes the right choice, America will encourage a peaceful relationship between Iran and Iraq,” he said Thursday. “If Iran makes the wrong choice, America will act to protect our interests and our troops and our Iraqi partners.”

Mr. Gates, speaking to reporters at the Pentagon, said that Iraqi officials were starting to pay heed. “They have had what I would call a growing understanding of that negative Iranian role, but I think what they encountered in Basra was a real eye-opener for them.”

Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, echoed the assessment that Basra offered evidence to counter statements that Iran was decreasing its efforts in Iraq. “As far as I’m concerned, this action in Basra was very convincing that indeed they haven’t,” the admiral said.

In addition, Gen. David H. Petraeus, the top commander in Iraq, told reporters on Friday that while the Iraqi police and army troops had established security through most of Basra, “several significant neighborhoods are not under control of the Iraqi security forces.” Combating the Shiite militias in those enclaves of Basra, Iraq’s second-largest city, will be “a months-long operation,” he said.

Iran remains one of the Bush administration’s stickiest foreign policy issues, and Washington is battling Iran on multiple fronts, as administration officials struggle to find a carrot-and-stick approach for influencing Iranian behavior. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said Friday that the United States would consider new incentives or sanctions as part of its battle to get Iran to rein in its nuclear ambitions.

She said she did not anticipate a new push just yet, but said that “we will always continue to consider refreshing both tracks,” referring to the administration’s two-track approach of sanctions if Iran continues to enrich uranium and incentives if it stops.

Russia and China have been urging major powers to sweeten the incentives package, but thus far the United States has balked.

During the interview, Mr. Crocker accused Iran of meddling in Afghanistan, Lebanon and Gaza, in addition to Iraq. He also faulted Iraq’s Arab neighbors for refusing to help, noting that a promised Saudi Arabian Embassy had yet to materialize.

“The Arabs are basically missing in action,” Mr. Crocker said. He said that while Saudi Arabia had helped in American attempts to rein in the flow of foreign fighters into Iraq, Sunni governments in the Middle East needed to establish more of a diplomatic presence in Iraq, which Bush officials believe would further legitimize the American-backed Iraqi government.

“It’s one of those things that have been in process for a long time,” Mr. Crocker said of the promised Saudi Embassy. “They’ve sent a delegation to scout out property. But somehow it never quite gets done.”

Thom Shanker and Eric Schmitt contributed reporting.

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