News On Iran & Its NeighboursIraqU.S. eyes covert plan to counter Iran in Iraq

U.S. eyes covert plan to counter Iran in Iraq

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Wall Street Journal: Military commanders and intelligence officers are pushing for greater authority to conduct covert operations to thwart Iranian influence in neighboring Iraq, according to U.S. officials.

The Wall Street Journal

By JULIAN E. BARNES, ADAM ENTOUS and SIOBHAN GORMAN

WASHINGTON—Military commanders and intelligence officers are pushing for greater authority to conduct covert operations to thwart Iranian influence in neighboring Iraq, according to U.S. officials.

The move comes amid growing concern in the Obama administration about Iran’s attempts in recent months to expand its influence in Iraq and the broader Middle East and what it says is Tehran’s increased arms smuggling to its allies.

Compounding the urgency is the planned reduction in the U.S. military presence in Iraq by the end of the year, a development that many fear will open up the country to more influence from Iran, which also has a majority Shiite population.

If the request is approved by the White House, the authorization for the covert activity in Iraq likely would take the form of a classified presidential “finding.” But unlike the secret order that authorized the Central Intelligence Agency’s campaign against al Qaeda in 2001, the current proposal is limited in scope, officials said.

Still, such a step would reflect the U.S.’s effort to contain Iranian activities in the region. Ending the U.S.’s involvement in the Iraqi conflict was a central promise of President Barack Obama’s 2008 campaign, and the administration wants to ensure it doesn’t withdraw troops only to see its main regional nemesis, Iran, raise its influence there.

Officials declined to provide details about the kinds of covert operations under consideration, but said they could include more aggressive interdiction efforts at the Iraq-Iran border and stepped-up measures to stop Iranian arms smuggling after the American drawdown.

The United Nations has blocked Iran from exporting sophisticated arms, guided missiles and nuclear technology. U.N. resolutions don’t ban small arms exports or the kind of primitive weapons Tehran has provided Shiite militias in Iraq, defense officials said.

The U.S. has conducted secret operations against Iran in Iraq before. In recent months the U.S. military has quietly boosted efforts to capture Iranian agents and intercept Iranian munitions in Iraq.

The U.S. government conducts covert operations when it wants to maintain the ability to deny a secret mission took place for security or diplomatic reasons.

The White House has become more worried about Iranian meddling in Iraq, Syria and Bahrain in recent months and has pushed the military and intelligence communities to develop proposals to counter Tehran.

In Iraq, U.S. officials say they have evidence that Iran has been providing Shiite militias with more powerful weapons and training, helping to increase the lethality of their attacks against U.S. forces—in particular, with the crude but deadly IRAM, or improvised rocket-assisted munitions.

Iran also has stepped up its support of the embattled Syrian government, providing equipment and technical know-how for the crackdown on antiregime protests, U.S. officials say. Tehran also has provided backing to Shiite protesters in Bahrain, though its support there has been limited, the officials say.

Iranian officials have repeatedly denied that they have played any role in arming militants in Iraq or worked to destabilize other Arab nations. Tehran has claimed the U.S. has leveled charges of arms smuggling to justify a continued American military presence.

Anthony Cordesman, a defense analyst at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, said the U.S. and Iranian competition for influence in Iraq was part of an attempt by both countries to preserve their interests in the Middle East amid a reordering of interests under the Arab Spring revolutions.

“From a U.S. viewpoint, containing Iran is critical and our strategic relationship with Iraq is critical,” Dr. Cordesman said. “This is one set of moves in a much more complicated chess game.”

In part, the proposal for new covert operations reflects a more hawkish attitude toward Iran within the Obama administration’s reshuffled national security team. Leon Panetta, the former CIA director now leading the Pentagon, has pressed Iraq to deal more forcefully with the threat from Iran.

Many members of the national security team, such as recently retired Gen. David Petraeus, who assumes the role of CIA director on Tuesday, have served in the U.S. Central Command, where military leaders have long viewed Iran as a threat to America and its Arab allies.

Nonetheless, both military and senior Obama administration officials believe they must proceed cautiously to ensure that any expansion in covert action doesn’t prompt Tehran to retaliate and inadvertently trigger a wider conflict.

While expanding covert activity, some government officials also want to improve communication with the Iranian military. Doing so could help ensure that Tehran doesn’t misconstrue covert actions that the U.S. sees as self-defense.

Attacks by Iranian-backed Iraqi militias pose the most immediate concern for U.S. officials. In June, 15 U.S. soldiers died in Iraq, the highest monthly total in three years.

American officials blamed Iranian involvement for many of the deaths and the White House approved a counterterrorism campaign to defend American troops.

Senior U.S. officials said those missions, which included secret operations on the Iran-Iraq border, helped curb Iranian backed attacks. There were no American deaths in August.

But the U.S. military is slated to withdraw nearly all of its 47,000 forces from Iraq by the end of December. U.S. and Iraqi officials are negotiating over whether to allow some troops to remain, but even if Baghdad approves a small residual force, that effort could be restricted to training activities.

Top Iraqi officials visited Tehran this summer to ask Iran to stop supplying Shiite militias with arms, and officials have condemned such Iranian interference. But the government remains divided over whether to more closely ally itself with the U.S. or Iran.

After December, the job of ensuring that Tehran can’t mount attacks in Iraq, arm militia groups or destabilize the government in Baghdad will fall more heavily on U.S. intelligence.

The CIA isn’t expected to draw down in Iraq as quickly as the military after December.

It also is possible that the agency will need to work with the U.S. military’s secretive special operations forces, as it did in the May raid in Pakistan resulting in the killing of Osama bin Laden.

If the presidential finding for an expansion of covert action is approved—and if some special operations forces remain in Iraq—they could be assigned to operate temporarily under CIA authority. The agency, under the National Security Act, is the only U.S. entity that can conduct covert operations.

Special operations forces would have the ability to carry out risky capture-or-kill missions that the CIA may not be able to conduct on its own.

A new finding also would ensure that the CIA and military special operations forces working for the agency have the legal ability under U.S. law to shut down the flow of arms from Iran to allied militia groups—even if those weapons aren’t explicitly banned by the U.N.

Other officials, including some in Congress, favor a broader secret campaign against Iran to block its support to Syria or to other militant groups elsewhere in the Middle East.

But officials said the current proposals being considered by the administration are focused more on countering malign Iranian influence in Iraq.

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