US defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld rushed over to Baghdad on April 12 for more than one urgent errand. He needed to abort without delay a Kurdish-Shiite deal to appoint none other than an ex-Iranian general to the sensitive cabinet post of interior minister.
This went beyond even Washington’s worst-case scenario for the rough-and-tumble world of Iraqi politics.
What happened, according to DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s Baghdad sources, was that Iraq’s Kurdish president Jalal Talabani and Shiite prime minister Ibrahim Jaafari, who have still not managed to form a government almost three months after the general election, agreed that General Hadi al-Amri would make a good interior minister.
The job also carries responsibility for Iraq’s secret services and its internal security forces, including the police and its special units. As security primo, the new interior minister would be in close, daily liaison with US military commanders and intelligence chiefs in Iraq and other parts of the Middle East. Yet Talabani and Jaafari concluded the deal on his appointment last week without so much as a word to the Americans.
Amri, whose rank was bestowed by Iran, commands the 10,000-strong Badr Force, an Iran-founded Shiite military arm of the SCIRI party, which is now headed by Abdul Aziz al-Hakim. Many Iraqis distrust this party because of its links to Tehran.
The Badr Force was established by Iran’s fiery Revolutionary Guards for Iraqi exiles who fled to Iran and wanted to fight Saddam Hussein for SCIRI.
Amri crossed into the Islamic Republic aged 19 in 1983, the third year of the Iran-Iraq war. He was then recruited into the Badr force. When this came to Saddam’s knowledge, he arrested and executed four of Amri’s brothers. The Badr Force returned to Iraq after the 1983 US-led invasion of Iraq, to serve SCIRI militarily and logistically. Amri climbed through the ranks of this quasi-military force until he attained the rank of general.
Since 2003, Badr commanders, unlike Moqtada Sadr and his extremist Shiite Mehdi army, are careful not to run up against American or coalition forces. They have focused instead on cementing their control of the Shiite regions running south of Baghdad up to Basra. A Badr “civilian” office has opened in every Shiite city and town. These offices are fronts for an active military framework which conducts training courses and boasts a command hierarchy.
Badr Force remains intact in Iraq
Badr troops occasionally cooperate with the Americans to fight guerrillas. But the US command in Baghdad is well aware that its thousands of officers and men were trained in Iran and lived there for many years. The Americans are highly mistrustful of where the force’s real loyalties lay. They have no doubt that the Badr Force is thoroughly penetrated by Iranian secret agents – notwithstanding its commanders’ insistence that their first loyalty is to Iraq’s national interests.
Talabani and Jaafari were not bowled over, therefore, when Rumsfeld turned up unannounced in Baghdad and told them point blank that General Amri’s appointment as interior minister was unacceptable.
According to DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s Iraq sources, the proposal came from the Jaafari as a stratagem for winning SCIRI backing and that of its leader al-Hakim for his effort to form a government. Talabani went along with the plan after being promised Kurdish control of all the other cabinet posts, especially defense, which has oversight authority over the new Iraqi army. What the Kurds really care about is ascertaining that the restructured Iraqi military will never set foot in semi-independent Kurdistan.
By scotching the deal, Rumsfeld put a spanner in Jaafari’s works. His bid to form a government has been set back and al-Hakim’s support has cooled.
According to our sources, the US defense secretary had another issue to take up with the Kurds regarding their aspirations. From Baghdad, he flew to the Kurdish city of Irbil and a crucial meeting with Talabani’s Kurdish partner Masoud Barzani, at which both Kurdish leaders were present. He informed them that Washington had finally decided against approving formal Kurdish administration of the northern oil city of Kirkuk.
This decision put paid to the Kurds’ annexation plan.
Although Kirkuk is in practice governed by the Kurds and there are no American plans to tamper with the status quo, Rumsfeld declared the city must remain under the formal control of the central government in Baghdad. He also emphasized that the Kurds would not be permitted to ban an Iraqi national army presence in their region, be it only a symbolic one.