Why Has Washington Given Tehran a Free Run in S. Iraq?

The Iraqi government’s crackdown against Shiite militias in the southern Iraqi towns of Basra, Kut, Diwaniya, Amara, and Nasiriyeh – and Baghdad’s Sadr City – slowed after less than a week, with very little to show for it. Most of the hundreds of people killed were civilians caught in the crossfire.

But not much has been said about the tidal changes Iraq underwent as a result of this otherwise inconclusive venture. They are highlighted here by DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s military sources:

1. For the first time in the five-year conflict, Iran’s Revolutionary Guards (IRGC) and clandestine agencies provided the logistic amenities for both sides in a major battle fought by Iraqi government forces. (The next article will detail the mechanics of this tactic.)

2. The US and Iran appear to have dovetailed their moves over the Basra engagement.

3. These two developments have had an untoward effect on the attitude of the Sunni Arab Awakening Councils, whose 90,000 members were recruited by the US army to help combat al Qaeda. Their anger has generated the first drop-outs of Sunni fighters. There are first signs that some are going back to attacking American troops and a showdown in the making with the Shiite Mehdi Army.

4. Riding high, this militia is showing muscle. Thursday, April 3, its leader, Moqtada Sadr called for a million-strong march in the shrine city of Najef against US “occupation” on April 9, the fifth anniversary of the fall of Baghdad.

On the face of it, Washington, in hot water with Shiites and Sunnis alike, looks as though it came together with Tehran in the Basra operation for the first time for the sake of pacifying Iraq.

Certain sources hinted that US officials had held secret talks with Iranian president Mahmoud Ahmadinejad when he visited Baghdad on March 2 and struck an accord with him on these lines. DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s sources do not substantiate or refute this suggestion.


Iran works both sides


At the same time, our military sources in Washington and Tehran do confirm that Iran’s Revolutionary Guards’ al Qods Brigades (which is in charge of external terrorist operations) were allowed to attain almost total – and admittedly efficient – control over the Iraqi government campaign and prime minister Nouri al Maliki who led it on the spot.

And strangely enough, Iranian agents also managed the militias Malilki had vowed to defeat. As a result, Iran’s men on the ground took over the entire battle scene, without US or British forces showing any resistance.

The Iraqi prime minister’s decision to crack down on the armed groups which had carved up South Iraq and its oil resources for their own profit was sparked by events detailed in DEBKA-Net-Weekly 342 of March 28 (PM Maliki Flouts Washington, Rides Alone in Basra), namely Vice President Dick Cheney‘s insistence during his Baghdad visit on March 22 on restoring the Shiite cleric Moqtada Sadr to government as the only strong leader able to form an amicable ruling coalition with Kurdish and Sunni Arab factions.

Maliki’s determination to crack down on his rival’s Mehdi Army came in response to Cheney’s assertion.

From that point on, the course of events defies logic. What drove Washington to give up to Iran so completely in South Iraq?

One of the great conundrums of the Bush administration must be the unseen tug-o’-war over the handling of Iran, with the president himself the most unpredictable element in the equation. One of its outward manifestations was the National Intelligence Estimate which last December put paid to American military action over a nuclear-armed Iran. Since then, Washington has acceded only to tepid UN Security Council penalties for Iran’s nuclear defiance, against the will of elements in the White House.

This behind-the-scenes tussle may account for the see-saw effect between the Middle East missions undertaken by Cheney and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice in the space of two weeks.


Cheney’s mission scrapped by Rice


The groundwork the Vice President laid in Baghdad, Riyadh, Jerusalem, Oman and Ankara, the secretary of state was said to be unraveling.

Persons she met in the region a few days late cited Rice as implying that the standpoint Cheney articulated when he met them did not necessarily represent Bush’s policy. While diplomatically refraining from mentioning Washington’s Iran policy, she let her interlocutors understand that the administration’s overriding drive to contain Iranian expansion as advanced by Cheney had been scrapped.

However, the gap in sequential logic which surfaced in Basra is hard to fathom, whomsoever may have dictated the next moves.

Days after Cheney spent time in the region discussing the importance of curbing Iran’s expansionist and nuclear aspirations with its leaders, the US military stood passively by as Iran forces took charge of southern Iraq. Confronted with the dilemma of letting the intra-Shiite fighting explode from Basra and the South into a comprehensive fraternal war – or falling into step with Iran – US policy-makers and their commanders in Iraq seem to have opted for the latter.

Friday, March 28, US and British warplanes made a couple of token passes over militia strongholds, which failed to help Iraqi forces make any headway; and President George W. Bush praised Maliki’s boldness. But that was that.

From that point on, Tehran was allowed to make the rules and set the pace, undisturbed.

This was in fact the second time in the five years that Washington has shunted the problematic Shiite South over to a non-American force.


Basra laid open to Iran’s domination


America’s 2003 Iraq campaign was pre-configured for British forces to assume responsibility for the oil-rich region, which includes Iraq’s only port, Basra. In the fall of 2007, London pulled out the bulk of its army, leaving a small force at the airport and a territory which had grown into the stamping ground of rival armed Shiite militias and gangs of smugglers.

Iran this week took their place, carried in by the failed Maliki expedition.

It is most unlikely that Ambassador Ryan Crocker and Iraq commander Gen. David Petraeus will spell out this development in their report to Congress this month. It is nonetheless of momentous significance as a factor in America’s presidential campaign, the political debate in the United States on foreign policy and, even more broadly, on the future of America’s standing in the Persian Gulf and Middle East.

By achieving pre-eminence in southern Iraq, Tehran has justified the argument current in some American circles that by going to war in Iraq, the Bush administration gave a leg-up to Iran’s interests and enhanced its influence.

This argument was presented forcibly by one of Senator Barack Obama’s senior foreign policy advisers Zbigniew Brezhinsky, who wrote in the Washington Post of March 30, under the title “The Smart Way out of a Foolish War”

The War has inflamed anti-American passions in the Middle East and South Asia while fragmenting Iraqi society and increasing the influence of Iran.

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s recent visit to Baghdad offers ample testimony that even the US.-installed government in Iraq is becoming susceptible to Iranian blandishments.

This perception was shared with shocking effect by Gulf and Middle East rulers who, fresh from listening to the US Vice President’s assurances, saw not only South Iraq falling under Tehran’s sway but also its black treasure.

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