Reuters: U.S. forces in Iraq fear a wave of assassinations ahead of provincial elections, some carried out by militant cells trained in Iran, the U.S. general in command of the southern half of the country said on Thursday.
By Peter Graff
BAGHDAD (Reuters) – U.S. forces in Iraq fear a wave of assassinations ahead of provincial elections, some carried out by militant cells trained in Iran, the U.S. general in command of the southern half of the country said on Thursday.
Iraq is due to hold provincial elections by the end of January, the first opportunity Iraqis have to vote since 2005.
Major-General Michael Oates, commander of the U.S. division that operates in eight of Iraq's nine mainly Shi'ite southern provinces, told reporters in Baghdad he expected a wave of political assassinations ahead of the voting.
"I personally believe we will see an uptick in that sort of violence as we go into an elections cycle because that is flatly the way some people deal with their political problems here, by eliminating their opponents," he said.
U.S. officials consider the polls vital because many groups that boycotted the last provincial vote now hope to gain representation in regional governments. But it is also the first time powerful provincial chieftains face the prospect of being voted out of office, and some may not go quietly.
Violence across southern Iraq has fallen from dozens of attacks per week to an average of just five per week, Oates said. He credited a ceasefire imposed last year by Shi'ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr on his Mehdi Army militia for much of that improvement.
"We believe it to be legitimate: that he is legitimately telling his followers that's the way he wants to go," Oates said of the truce. "We also know that the level of violence has gone down. So his ceasefire is both effective and recognized."
"We also know that some of his followers have split with him over this decision. We also know that they are still supported by elements in Iran, particularly the Quds force," he said.
The Quds force is an arm of Iran's Revolutionary Guard, which Washington says trains Islamist militants in Iraq and other countries. Iran denies it trains Iraqi militants and says it is only interested in friendly ties with its neighbor.
Oates said leaders of renegade cells had mainly fled to Iran, but some had returned and were seeking to recruit disaffected former followers of Sadr.
He said the new cells they were forming mainly operated underground and were smaller than units of Sadr's Mehdi Army militia, which once controlled many parts of southern Iraq but have largely disbanded or disappeared from view.
"Where they return they seek to regenerate violent cells," he said. "They could be used as a political change agent to affect conditions on the ground by killing candidates."
(Editing by Samia Nakhoul)