Juan Cole on Bush’s Iran Policy

The danger of Bush’s anti-Iran fatwa
By Juan Cole

The president’s decision to use force against Iranian “agents” inside Iraq could snare innocent pilgrims, and raises the risk of open warfare.

Jan. 30, 2007 | George W. Bush last week announced that American troops in Iraq were henceforth authorized to “kill or capture” any Iranian intelligence agents they discovered in Iraq. The announcement came on the heels of his pledge in the State of the Union address to bring another aircraft carrier into the Persian Gulf, a move that clearly targeted Iran. A prominent Iranian parliamentarian responded to Bush’s threat by saying, “Such an order is a clear terrorist act and against all internationally acknowledged norms.” Iraq’s deputy prime minister, meanwhile, put a pox on both Iran and the U.S. for conducting their geopolitical battle on Iraqi soil.

The danger of Bush’s approach may be realized in short order. Tuesday, Jan. 30, marks the 10th day of Muharram, and is the Islamic holy day known as Ashura. Iraq is the Shiite holy land, the site of the passion and martyrdom of revered figures such as Ali, the son-in-law of the Prophet Mohammed, and al-Husayn, the Prophet’s grandson. Thousands of Iranians come on pilgrimage to the Shiite shrine cities of Najaf and Karbala in Iraq every year, and the flow of pilgrims peaks at Ashura, which commemorates the martyrdom of al-Husayn. Ashura is an especially important holiday to Shiites, drawing up to 1 million pilgrims to Karbala, 60 miles southwest of Baghdad. In 2004 Sunni insurgents exploited the presence of so many Shiite pilgrims by setting off massive explosions that killed more than 100 people.

Given Bush’s new directive, how will U.S. troops distinguish between innocent Iranian devotees and spies? What if U.S. troops kill pilgrims in a mistaken belief that they are covert operatives? Leaving aside whether U.S. law authorizes such a broad, vague use of deadly force against foreign nationals, which is unclear, Shiite religious sensibilities would be inflamed in both Iraq and Iran, furthering the potential for a widening conflict.

Or maybe the spark for a wider conflict is just what the increasingly desperate President Bush seeks. His fixation on Iranian activities in Iraq cannot be explained by his cover story, which is that Tehran is supplying weapons to forces that kill U.S. troops. To date, no hard evidence that the Iranian government is sending high-powered weaponry into Iraq has been made public, and no credible proof may be forthcoming. In general, one should take such claims with a large grain of salt, much like the skepticism with which one should greet the official U.S. story about the firefight in Najaf on the weekend that supposedly claimed the lives of 250 insurgents.

To begin with, some 99 percent of all attacks on U.S. troops occur in Sunni Arab areas and are carried out by Baathist or Sunni fundamentalist (Salafi) guerrilla groups. Most of the outside help these groups get comes from the Sunni Arab public in countries allied with the United States, notably Saudi Arabia and other Gulf monarchies. Washington has yet to denounce Saudi aid to the Sunni insurgents who are killing U.S. troops.

Meanwhile, the most virulent terror network in Iraq, which styles itself “al-Qaida in Mesopotamia,” has openly announced that its policy is to kill as many Shiites as possible. That the ayatollahs of Shiite Iran are passing sophisticated weapons to these, their sworn enemies, is not plausible.

If Iran is providing materiel to anyone, it is to U.S. allies. Tehran may be helping the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq and its Badr Corps paramilitary, but the U.S. is not fighting that group. By sale or barter, some weaponry originally given to the Badr Corps might be finding its way to other groups, such as the Mahdi Army of nationalist Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, that do sometimes come into conflict with the U.S. That problem, however, must be a relatively small one, and cannot explain Bush’s hyperbolic rhetoric about Iran.

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