Iranian Scapegoat

US Tags Iran for Casualties from Its Own Attacks
by Gareth Porter
August 17, 2007, IPS

WASHINGTON – When a top U.S. commander in Iraq reported last week that attacks by Shiite militias with links to Iran had risen to 73 percent of all July attacks that had killed or wounded U.S. forces in Baghdad, he claimed it was because of an effort by Iran to oust the United States from Iraq, referring to “intelligence reports” of a “surge” in Iranian assistance.

But the obvious reason for the rise in Shiite-related U.S. casualties, — ignored in U.S. media coverage of Lt. General Raymond Odierno’s charge — is that the Mahdi Army of Moqtada al-Sadr was defending itself against a rising tempo of attacks by U.S. forces at the same time attacks by al-Qaeda forces had fallen.

In his press briefing on Aug. 5, Odierno, the second-ranking U.S. commander in Iraq, blamed the rise in the proportion of U.S. casualties attributable to Shiite militias on Iran “surging their support to these groups based on the September report” — a reference to the much-anticipated report by General David Petraeus on the U.S.’s own surge strategy.

Odierno claimed intelligence reports supported his contention of an Iranian effort to influence public perceptions of the surge strategy. “They’re sending more money in, they’re training more individuals and they’re sending more weapons in.”

He repeated the charge in an interview with Michael R. Gordon of the New York Times published on its front page Aug. 8 under the headline, “U.S. Says Iran-Supplied Bomb Is Killing More Troops in Iraq.” In that interview, he declared of Iran, “I think they want to influence the decision potentially coming up in September.”

What Odierno framed in terms of an Iranian policy, however, can be explained much more simply by the fact that the U.S. military mounted more operations on Moqtada al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army during the spring and summer.

The U.S. command has not provided any statistics on the targets of its operations in recent months, but news reports on those operations reveal a pattern of rising U.S. attacks on Mahdi Army personnel since March 2007.

Between Apr. 26 and Jun. 30, the U.S. command in Baghdad announced dozens of military operations in Baghdad — the vast majority in Sadr City — solely for the purpose of capturing or killing Shiites belonging to what were called “secret cells” — a term used to describe Mahdi Army units alleged to be supported by Iran.

In July the Mahdi Army resisted these raids in many cases. On Jul. 9, for example, U.S. troops cordoned off an area in Sadr City and began searching for members of what the U.S. command called a “criminal militia” accused of planting roadside bombs. According to the official military press release, the U.S. troops were “engaged by rocket-propelled grenades and small arms fire from numerous locations.”

In short, the rise in deaths of U.S. troops in Baghdad in July reflected the increased pace of U.S. operations against the Mahdi Army and the Mahdi Army’s military response.

Odierno conceded as much in the same press conference: “Because of the effect we’ve had on al-Qaeda in Iraq and the success against them and the Sunni insurgency,” he said, “we are focusing very much more on the special groups of the Jaish al-Mahdi [Mahdi Army] here in Baghdad.”

The major briefing by the U.S. command on alleged Iranian support for Iraqi Shiite militias in recent weeks appears to contradict Odierno’s claim that intelligence showed increased Iranian assistance to those militias. Brig. Gen. Kevin Bergner told reporters on Aug. 2 — after a “surge” in Iranian assistance had allegedly taken place — that the rate of training of militia groups in Iran had remained stable for a long time.

The transcript of the briefing also shows that Bergner did not claim any recent increase in financial assistance to the Mahdi Army.

Odierno’s reference to “sending more weapons in” continued the practice of the George W. Bush administration to claim that Iranian officials actually ship weapons to Shiite militias in Iraq, despite the fact that no evidence of such a role has been found after four years of trying.

Odierno told the New York Times that explosively formed penetrators (EFPs) accounted for one-third of combat deaths suffered by “U.S.-led forces” — including Iraqi and British forces — in July. But he said nothing about the proportion of total U.S. troops killed or wounded by them.

The Bush administration continues to assert that EFPs are provided by the Iranian government, despite numerous discoveries by U.S. forces of workshops manufacturing such devices in Iraq.

Odierno’s charges are the latest addition to an ongoing Bush administration narrative about developments in Iraq that treats all Shiite activity outside the Iraqi government as reflecting Iranian policy.

Its central theme of an Iranian policy to drive the U.S. out of Iraq by killing U.S. troops, first introduced in January, has branched out into several sub-themes, one of which is that Sadr has lost control over the Mahdi Army. The U.S. command has been claiming it has broken up into “rogue units” — also called “special groups” or “secret cells”. Those “rogue units” in turn are said to have become instruments of Iranian policy.

Although the Mahdi Army operates on a highly decentralised basis, and some units have been involved in sectarian activities that Sadr did not approve, the U.S. military has never produced evidence that a significant number of units are no longer loyal to Sadr.

The “rogue units” line has been used to suggest that those units that were loyal to Sadr were cooperating with the United States and to justify U.S. attacks on the Mahdi Army both in Baghdad and in Southern Iraq.

Gen. Petraeus claimed publicly that Sadr had agreed in talks with Iraq’s Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to the deployment of U.S. troops to Baghdad’s Sadr City district in return for assurances that searches and raids would be conducted in a “respectable manner”.

Sadr’s spokesman in parliament said, however, that the understanding had been that Iraqi forces would conduct searches and that U.S. troops would intervene only if they faced resistance. The spokesman said U.S. troops had violated the understanding.

At first, Sadr’s troops stayed off the streets and did not resist U.S. troops. But in March Sadr’s office denounced the U.S. troop deployment in Sadr City and called on people to take to the streets in protest. And a Shiite cleric loyal to Sadr exhorted followers at Friday prayers not to cooperate with the U.S. occupation of Sadr City.

On Apr. 8, Sadr issued a statement urged the Iraqi army and police to stop cooperating with the United States and told his guerrilla fighters to concentrate on pushing U.S. forces out of the country.

Thus it requires no Iranian hand to explain the escalation of the conflict between the Mahdi Army and the U.S. military that accounts for the changing pattern of U.S. casualties in Baghdad.

Gareth Porter is an historian and national security policy analyst. His latest book, “Perils of Dominance: Imbalance of Power and the Road to War in Vietnam“, was published in June 2005.

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U.S. actions against Iran raise war risk, many fear
By Warren P. Strobel and Nancy A. Youssef | McClatchy Newspapers
Posted on Fri, August 17, 2007

WASHINGTON — As President Bush escalates the United States’ confrontation with Iran across a broad front, U.S. allies in Europe and the Middle East are growing worried that the steps will achieve little, but will undercut diplomacy and increase the chances of war.

In the latest step, Bush and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice are considering designating Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, the elite military force that serves as the guardian of Iran’s Islamic state, as a foreign terrorist organization.

News of the decision was leaked to newspapers in what a senior State Department official and Washington-based diplomats said was a sign of an intensifying internal struggle within the U.S. government between proponents of military action and opponents, led by Rice.

State Department officials and foreign diplomats see Rice’s push for the declaration against the Revolutionary Guards as an effort to blunt arguments by Vice President Dick Cheney and his allies for air strikes on Iran. By making the declaration, they feel, Rice can strike out at a key Iranian institution without resorting to military action while still pushing for sanctions in the United Nations.

Partisans of military force argue that Rice’s strategy has failed to change Tehran’s behavior.

“It really does seem this is more tied to the internal debate that is going on in the administration on Iran, rather than a serious attempt to influence Iranian behavior,” said an Arab diplomat, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the issue’s sensitivity.

“How that debate will play out is what’s concerning” Arab and European countries, he said.

Designating the Revolutionary Guard as a terrorist group “is the State Department trying to do something short of war,” said former U.S. diplomat Charles Dunbar, a professor of international relations at Boston University.

“What else can we do?” said Dunbar, who worked for the State Department in Tehran from 1963 to 1967.

The Revolutionary Guard would be the first military unit of a sovereign government ever placed on the department’s list of terrorist organizations. The move would allow the Treasury Department to go after the group’s finances and those of its reputed business network inside and outside Iran.

The Bush administration has been engaging Iran in a increasingly strident war of words since the spring, when the Bush administration demanded tougher U.N. sanctions over Iran’s nuclear energy program. The White House says that Bush remains committed to diplomatic and financial actions to persuade Iran to stop enriching nuclear fuel, which the U.S. says can be made into a bomb but that Iran insists is intended only for electricity generation.

Recently, the administration has stepped up the rhetoric, accusing Iran of providing Shiite Muslim militias in Iraq with particularly deadly roadside bombs that have killed dozens of U.S. service members.

“We are confronting Iranian behavior across a variety of different fronts on a number of different, quote- unquote, battlefields, if you will,” State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said Wednesday.

Earlier this year, the Pentagon temporarily moved an additional aircraft carrier into the Persian Gulf as a warning to Iran. U.S. commanders in Iraq have also highlighted intelligence they say shows that the Revolutionary Guard’s Qods force is shipping sophisticated road-side bombs, known as explosively formed penetrators, into Iraq.

Bush and his aides also have accused Iran of playing an unhelpful role in Afghanistan — although some State Department officials say the reality is much more complicated.

Finally, Rice and Defense Secretary Robert Gates traveled to the Middle East in late July and early August, bearing promises of billions in weapons sales to friendly Arab states and a $30 billlion, 10-year military aid package to Israel. The rationale: Iran.

What remains unclear is what the administration will do if none of those steps has an impact on Iran, whose leaders seem confident as they see Bush unpopular at home and bogged down in Iraq.

“The coercion … undermines diplomacy. And once diplomacy is undermined, it becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy,” said Ray Takeyh, an Iran expert at the Council on Foreign Relations.

By early 2008, “You’re in a position where you have a series of escalatory measures … And then the military option becomes something you can consider,” Takeyh said.

On the nuclear front, since taking office in 2005, Rice has backed a European-led effort to persuade Iran to stop enriching uranium in exchange for economic, political and security benefits.

The U.N. Security Council has passed two resolutions imposing sanctions on Iran for its nuclear work. But negotiations on a third have stalled and a September deadline for enacting new sanctions will likely be missed, say State Department officials and diplomats.

Critics say that designating the Revolutionary Guard as a terrorist group could further undermine the effort, and also scuttle U.S.-Iranian talks in Baghdad on Iraq’s security. Those talks have achieved little.

On Iran’s role in Iraq, U.S. ground commanders in Iraq oppose proposals from Cheney and his allies to counter-attack inside Iran itself, saying they believe they can contain Iran’s growing influence without acting outside Iraq.

Privately, some are hostile to suggestions that the military strike another country, saying they are mired in Iraq.

“Let them put on the uniform and go there then,” said one military official in Baghdad who asked not to be identified because of the sensitivity of the topic.

Lt. Gen. Raymond Odierno, the No. 2 commander in Iraq, said Friday that Shi’ite factions, backed by Iranian groups, are now responsible for nearly half the attacks in Iraq, compared to 30 percent in January.

Odierno said he could deal with the problem inside Iraq, without going over the border into Iran. But he conceded that the military still is learning about how Iranian networks run through Iraq.

“We’re just in the beginning stages” of denting Iranian influence, he said. Iran’s abilities are “still significant. So we still have an awful lot of work to do.”

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