OpinionIran in the World PressThe Second Iran-Iraq War

The Second Iran-Iraq War

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Wall Street Journal: Iran now causes the majority of the violence and instability in Iraq, a trend that began in July 2007, according to U.S. Army Lt. Gen. Raymond T. Odierno, when U.S. and Iraqi military offensives swept al Qaeda from its safe havens around Baghdad. The Wall Street Journal

OPINION

By KIMBERLY KAGAN
April 3, 2008; Page A15

Iran now causes the majority of the violence and instability in Iraq, a trend that began in July 2007, according to U.S. Army Lt. Gen. Raymond T. Odierno, when U.S. and Iraqi military offensives swept al Qaeda from its safe havens around Baghdad.

Senior officials of the Iranian government, the U.S. military has noted in press briefings, support and in some cases control, illegal armed groups that are fighting American forces and undermining the Iraqi government. In particular, the recent fighting in Basra and Baghdad is not at root a civil war between Iraqi Shia political factions, but an ongoing struggle between the Iraqi government and illegal militias organized, trained, equipped and funded by Iran.

Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and the Iraqi Security Forces are now fighting these militias, a long-standing demand of the U.S. that was articulated in congressional benchmarks in 2006. The question for Americans is simple: Will we support Iraq in this fight, or abandon its government and people?

Iran has sponsored illegal militias since the formation of the Maliki government in 2006. The Qods Force, Iran’s premier terrorist training team and exporter of its revolution, provided between $750,000 and $3 million-worth of equipment and funding to Iraq’s militias monthly in the first half of 2007, according to U.S. Brig. Gen. Kevin Bergner. In addition, the U.S. military and the press note that Lebanese Hezbollah under Qods Force auspices directly trained Iraqi fighters, sending military advisers to help Moqtada al-Sadr create the Mahdi Army in August 2003, to train Iraqi militias inside Iran in 2005, and to advise the militias inside Iraq since 2006.

The Iranian-trained militias operated in 2006-2008 as units known as Special Groups or Secret Cells, ostensibly claiming to serve within Mr. Sadr’s militia. In reality, the U.S. military says their titular leader – the ex-Sadrist Qais Khazali – reported to a Lebanese Hezbollah commander, who in turn reported to the highest Qods Force leaders.

The foreign advisers organized these Iraqi opposition groups into a Hezbollah-style structure. The Special Groups kidnapped Iraqi government officials, ran death squads against Iraqi civilians, and regularly rocketed and mortared the Green Zone with Iranian-imported weapons. They smuggled in and placed highly-lethal, explosively-formed projectiles (EFPs) to kill U.S. soldiers. In short, Iranian-backed Special Groups prevented Iraq’s government from effectively controlling the country in 2006, even removing some of the Mahdi Army from Mr. Sadr’s control. In the recent clashes, the Special Groups coordinated the unrest and attacks of the regular Mahdi Army in the capital and provinces. In Baghdad, the Mahdi Army, in turn, facilitated Special Groups’ movements.

Moqtada al Sadr ordered his militia to cease fire on March 30 after representatives of Mr. Maliki’s Da’wa Party and others traveled to Iran to speak with the commander of the Qods Force. Days before, in a long interview with al Jazeera from an Iranian city, Mr. Sadr requested the release of Qais Khazali from U.S. custody. The recent, general violence ended when the Qods Force judged that it should end.

Where does this leave us? The Iraqi Army’s operations in Basra did not eliminate illegal militias there. The Mahdi Army and the Special Groups have evidently fortified defenses around the city’s perimeter, as well as some neighborhoods, which the Iraqi Army could not reduce at this time. But the operation also revealed new strengths of Iraq’s government and Security Forces.

Mr. Maliki demonstrated his willingness to challenge Shiite militias and Iran in the Shiite heartland of Iraq. The Iraqi Security Forces ably demonstrated their capability to defend central Iraq, and quell an uprising of the Mahdi Army and the Special Groups in the most important cities between Baghdad and Basra. The remaining security problems in Basra will have to be addressed in future operations, which we should encourage the government of Iraq to undertake after additional planning and, perhaps, reinforcement.

The recent fighting in Iraq has also revealed much about our enemies. The intensity of Special Groups activities rose from January to March; U.S. and Iraqi forces found the large caches of EFPs and new Iranian rockets that often precede a Special Groups offensive. The Basra operations seem to have prompted the Special Groups and the Mahdi Army to launch this offensive prematurely, not according to plan. It did not succeed.

Iran and Mr. Sadr could not simply unleash a floodtide of violence that would overwhelm Iraqi Security Forces partnered with U.S. units, because they are more capable of handling the situation. For all of his nationalist rhetoric, Mr. Sadr is evidently not in control of his movement — it appears that the decision to fight or not rested with the Qods Force commander and not with him. But Mr. Sadr’s militia remains a reserve from which the Special Groups can and will draw in crisis.

These events provide an enormous opportunity for either the U.S. or for Iran – and whichever state responds most intelligently and quickly to the circumstances on the ground will gain the benefit. The U.S. should encourage the Iraqi government to defeat Iran’s proxies and agents, and should provide the requisite assistance. It should encourage and support the Iraqi government’s laudable determination to establish the rule of law throughout Iraq, not just where U.S. forces are present.

The U.S. and the Iraqi government must also expand the Sons of Iraq initiative – the program local Iraqis in Baghdad, Anbar and Diyala have utilized to secure their communities alongside Iraqi Security Forces – into Shiite areas. The U.S. should provide funding and support for these groups in the south, and services for their communities, as it does in Sunni areas. The Sons of Iraq have the potential to transform Iraqi politics profoundly, making the Shiite parties more responsive to the needs of the people and less responsive to taking direction from Iran.

Above all, the U.S. must recognize that Iran is engaged in a full-up proxy war against it in Iraq. Iranian agents and military forces are actively attacking U.S. forces and the government of Iraq. Every rocket that lands in the Green Zone should remind us that Iran’s aims are evidently not benign – they are at best destabilizing and at worst hegemonic. The U.S. must defeat al Qaeda in Iraq, and protect Iraq from the direct military intervention of Iran. Failure to do so will invite Iranian domination of an Arab state that now seeks to be our ally.

Ms. Kagan is president of the Institute for the Study of War. Her reports on the military operations in Iraq are available at www.understandingwar.org.

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