Wall Street Journal: Some of the Iraqi Shiite extremist groups that the U.S. claims are backed by Iran say they are ratcheting up attacks in Iraq in tandem with Tehran's post-election crackdown on protesters.
The Wall Street Journal
By GINA CHON
BAGHDAD — Some of the Iraqi Shiite extremist groups that the U.S. claims are backed by Iran say they are ratcheting up attacks in Iraq in tandem with Tehran's post-election crackdown on protesters.
Shiite militia leaders say a toughening resolve among hard-liners in Iran is translating into direct orders from Iran-based leaders to increase attacks, as well as inspiring militants next door in Iraq to demonstrate their influence.
Supporters of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad celebrated Tuesday in Iran, the Associated Press reported, after the country's highest electoral authority validated its disputed presidential election, paving the way for the incumbent to begin a second term despite claims of fraud.
The threat of more violence is a fresh challenge for the Iraqi army and police, who took over responsibility for security in cities across Iraq from U.S. troops Tuesday. The handover was greeted with public celebrations across Iraq, where the move was hailed as the first step toward the planned U.S. departure from the country in 2011.
Iraqi forces will have to deal with Sunni militants as well as Shiite. U.S. Defense Secretary Robert Gates said Tuesday that he expected al Qaeda to mount new attacks in Iraq in the wake of the American withdrawal, but that the terrorist group appeared unable to spur large-scale Shiite reprisals.
In the 10 days leading up to the June 30 deadline for American combat forces to leave Iraqi cities, more than 200 Iraqis were killed. In recent weeks, suspected al Qaeda militants have set off a string of car bombs in Shiite neighborhoods and marketplaces in Baghdad, killing dozens of civilians. On Tuesday, a car bomb killed at least 20 people in Kirkuk, in northern Iraq.
There have also been increased attacks in areas in Baghdad where Shiite extremists say they are regrouping, such as Baiyaa and Sadr City. An explosion in Sadr City last week at a market killed more than 70 people.
A member of a Shiite extremist group said that as the Iranian government became more aggressive in quashing the protests in Iran recently, pressure from Iran-based leaders on Shiite extremist groups to increase attacks in Iraq also went up.
"We are coming back, and we have new missions now," the member said in an interview.
Analysts and officials have suggested that grim images of the crackdown in Tehran may stall the ascendancy of Iranian influence across the Middle East, and that the unrest may push Tehran to act more aggressively to show it remains undaunted by domestic strife.
The Iranian embassy in Baghdad and the Iranian mission to the United Nations in New York didn't respond to requests for comment for this article. Iran has denied it aids violent groups inside Iraq.
Mr. Gates said Tuesday that Iran was continuing to provide weaponry and other covert assistance to some of Iraq's armed groups, but said the "amount of it is down some."
Early last year, U.S. officials blamed Shiite extremist groups, which they said had Iranian backing, for lobbing rockets and mortar at the heavily fortified Green Zone, the diplomatic and government enclave in central Baghdad. The attacks came from Shiite havens elsewhere in the city.
The groups were hurt by a government-led offensive last year. Many leaders and members were killed, arrested or fled to Iran, according to the U.S. military.
After less than a year of relative quiet, rocket attacks on the Green Zone now occur several times a week. Some rockets have landed near the U.S. embassy.
Since the crackdown on protesters after Iran's June 12 elections, "our supporters are more determined now to have an influence in Iraq," said a cell leader for an Iraqi Shiite extremist group. This person said he receives orders from two Iraqi leaders who have been in Iran since seeking refuge there last year.
In Iran, alongside the crackdown by security services, military commanders appeared on television to assure audiences that the country's military hasn't been diminished.
A U.S. official in Baghdad said there is concern that the paramilitary arm of the elite Iranian Revolutionary Guards, known as the Quds Force, could become more aggressive in its involvement in Iraq because of reaction against the election protests in Iran. The U.S. military says the Quds Force is the main supporter of Shiite extremists operating in Iraq.
America's top commander in Iraq, Gen. Ray Odierno, said Tuesday that he didn't expect Iranian support for Shiite extremists in Iraq to end. Three Shiite militia members said extremists hope that by targeting civilian populations in places like Sadr City, they will draw the Americans back into the fight.
—Yochi J. Dreazen and Iraqi staff of The Wall Street Journal contributed to this article.