New York Times: The Iraqi prime minister is sending several senior Shiite leaders to Tehran to discuss their concerns that Iran is arming and financing militias in Iraq, senior Iraqi and American officials said Wednesday.
The New York Times
By ALISSA J. RUBIN and MICHAEL R. GORDON
Published: May 1, 2008
BAGHDAD — The Iraqi prime minister is sending several senior Shiite leaders to Tehran to discuss their concerns that Iran is arming and financing militias in Iraq, senior Iraqi and American officials said Wednesday.
Iraqi officials including Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki have previously traveled to Iran, but this appears to be the first time that an elite delegation has been dispatched by Mr. Maliki to take up reports of Iranian intervention in Iraq.
American officials supported the trip, but portrayed it as the brainchild of Mr. Maliki. One American official described the Iraqis’ concern about Iran’s role as “the silver lining” to recent fighting between Shiite militias and Iraqi and American security forces in Basra and in the Sadr City area of Baghdad, a militia stronghold.
The delegation, which was scheduled to leave Wednesday, was handpicked by Mr. Maliki, who went out of his way in an interview Wednesday to stress his independence. “I have never been the man of Iran, and I told America that I’m not the man of America in Iraq,” he told Al Arabiya, an Arab news channel.
Information about the trip was closely held because of the sensitivities of the relationship between Iraq and Iran. Sadiq al-Rikabi, a senior political adviser to Mr. Maliki, would say only that all issues would be on the table.
Over the years, Iran has backed at least two of the most influential Shiite political parties and their militias.
An Iraqi official said the delegation included two of Mr. Maliki’s long-time political allies and a powerful member of another Shiite political party that backs him. All of them have ties to Iran.
The official said the group would raise the issue of the Iranian arms shipments that have been found and other indications that Tehran is meddling in Iraq’s internal affairs. The delegation is expected to visit influential ayatollahs in Qom and to go to Tehran.
One Iraqi official said he expected the group to meet with Brig. Gen. Qassen Suleimani, the head of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Quds Force, a paramilitary group that American officials say is backing Shiite militias in Iraq.
Some officials said the delegation might also meet with Moktada al-Sadr, the cleric whose Madhi Army has been involved in attacks on American and Iraqi troops, and who is now thought to be staying in Iran.
In recent weeks, President Bush and other American officials have complained about what they say is a growing Iranian role in arming, training and financing antigovernment Shiite militias. Iraqi military officials said their forces discovered a large cache of Iranian-made arms in Basra several weeks ago, in the course of the Maliki government’s offensive against militia groups there.
Some had markings indicating they were made this year, according to American military officials. The Green Zone in Baghdad, which is the seat of the Iraqi government and the site of the American Embassy, has regularly come under fire from Iranian-made rockets.
Partly as a result of the increased fighting with militias, American casualties have climbed. With five more American soldiers reported killed Wednesday, the month’s toll rose to 50, the highest since September.
During the battles in Basra and in Sadr City, the Americans accused “special groups,” cells that they believe are trained, supplied and directed by Iran, of assaults on both Iraqi and American security forces. The Iraqi government refers to those fighting it simply as “criminals.”
Many American military and intelligence officials say that Iran in recent months has sought to obscure its connections to the militias by training a select number of militia leaders, who in turn would train the foot soldiers in Iraq. They have also suggested in recent days that the events in Basra angered Iraqi officials, including Mr. Maliki, who was on hand in the city during the fighting. “They are fed up with the way Iran has been acting,” said an American official, referring to Iraqi officials.
American officials said that in addition to raising concerns about Iranian arms supplies, the Iraqis were likely to discuss the Iranians’ penchant for manipulating militias rather than working with the government.
While the Americans are taking a more confrontational approach, many Iraqis are divided on how to approach Iran. The Americans see Iran as an enemy of Iraq, intent on undercutting the neighbor with whom it fought a bloody eight-year war when Saddam Hussein was in power.
Many Iraqi Shiites, including officers in the military, resent Tehran’s efforts to influence events in Iraq, which they say are aimed at undermining the government. But many others, who spent years in exile in Iran, see a country that is also deeply connected to Iraq, through religious bonds and kinship ties. And some Shiite political parties have received considerable support from Iran.
Speaking to Al Arabiya, Mr. Maliki stressed that his diplomacy should not be seen as a slap at the Iranians. “It must not be interpreted as if it’s a turn against Iran, and then I was dragged into clashes with the Sadr movement,” he said. However, in the same interview, he warned “all those who interfere in Iraqi affairs” and specifically mentioned Iran.
Among Mr. Maliki’s emissaries are Ali al-Adeeb, a senior member of Mr. Maliki’s Dawa Party, and Hadi al-Ameri, a senior member of the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq, a Shiite party in Mr. Maliki’s coalition. Another member is Tariq Abdullah, an old friend of the prime minister who runs Mr. Maliki’s office.
Both Mr. Ameri and Mr. Adeeb spent much of their lives in exile in Iran and have good relations with the Iranian government. Mr. Adeeb also has good ties with senior religious figures.
Their long experience in working with Iran may make it easier for them to gain a receptive audience, but it is also possible that they will take a softer line in confronting Tehran over the allegations of interference. In the past the Iranians supported both the Dawa Party and the Supreme Council.
“If I were prime minister, I would have to have a strong relationship with Iran,” said Qassim Daoud, an independent Shiite lawmaker. “We have a 1,340-kilometer border with them, and they have an influence on Iraqi affairs.”
He added, “It is quite obvious that the Iranians have the upper hand to manipulate the situation in Iraq.”
But whether the delegation will succeed in influencing Iran’s behavior is unclear. Lt. Gen. Raymond T. Odierno, who has been picked by Mr. Bush to succeed Gen. David H. Petraeus as the senior American commander in Iraq, said in a February interview that he thought Iran’s goal was to support Shiite militias to ensure that the Iraqi state remained too weak to challenge Iran’s growing power and influence in the region.
“I think Iran’s interests are a weak government of Iraq,” he said at the time.
The United States is said to have been planning for weeks to conduct a briefing in Baghdad to present new evidence of Iranian involvement. But it has held off to give Iraqi officials a chance to present their concerns directly to Iranian officials.
Steven Lee Myers contributed reporting from Washington, and Tareq Mahir from Baghdad.