Iran shifts attention to brokering peace in Iraq
Details from a secret meeting between top Iranian and Iraqi officials signal Iran's aim to 'stop arming' militias.
ISTANBUL, Turkey; and BAGHDAD
While the deal inked Monday was tested Tuesday as militants in Moqtada al-Sadr's Baghdad stronghold launched overnight attacks on US forces, Iraqi officials say that Iranian influence was key to reaching the deal with the anti-American cleric aimed at ending weeks of deadly fighting.
Iran's intervention comes as previously undisclosed details are emerging of a secret meeting between Iraqi President Jalal Talabani, other senior Iraqi officials, and the commander of Iran's Qods Force, Brig. Gen. Qassem Soleimani, in April, after clashes with Sadr's Mahdi Army in Basra. In that meeting, General Soleimani "was deeply concerned" and "promised to stop arming groups in Iraq and to ensure that groups halt activities against US forces," according to a description given by a US official to the Monitor.
Soleimani gave Mr. Talabani a "message" for US Gen. David Petraeus, too. He noted that his portfolio includes Iraq, Gaza, and Lebanon and that he was willing to "send a small team" to "discuss any issue" with the Americans.
Talabani and other senior Iraqi leaders told US Ambassador Ryan Crocker and General Petraeus that this "was an entirely different tone than we had ever heard from [Soleimani] before," and asked the Americans to "please take it seriously" and "test it," according to the official.
Mr. Crocker and Petraeus – who told Congress in April that Iran was waging a "proxy war" against the US in Iraq – expressed skepticism, noting how even the ambassador's Green Zone residence had recently come under fire from 240-mm rockets made in Iran.
The top two US officials in Iraq dismissed Soleimani's words as an Iranian bid to become an "indispensable power broker" in Iraq as part of a "brilliant tactical game" meant to keep the US and Iraqi governments "off balance" and to spread Iran's influence in Iraq, according to the US official, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
But Crocker agreed to wait and see if Iran had "truly made a strategic readjustment," according to this US account, adding that "actions need to be visible" and "we will know soon enough."
The suspicion matches the continuing hostile rhetoric from both sides. As he left for Israel, President Bush on Monday called Iran the "single biggest threat" to peace in the Middle East. Just days before, Iran's supreme religious leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei lambasted American support for the Jewish state and called the US military presence in the Persian Gulf "the source of insecurity in this very sensitive region."
US and, increasingly, Iraqi officials accuse Iran – through its elite Qods Force of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps – of setting up networks inside Iraq after the fall of Saddam Hussein to exercise a "malign influence." The US charges Iran with backing militants of all stripes, including Sadr's Mahdi Army militia and breakaway Shiite gunmen that the US calls "special groups." The US also alleges that Iran provides lethal roadside bombs that have taken "hundreds" of US lives.
Two weeks ago, an Iraqi delegation sent to Iran by Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki returned with promises that Iran would support Mr. Maliki's Shiite-led government and lean on Sadr to reach a truce.
Iran "committed to acting more positively, and we are now awaiting evidence of that commitment," says Haidar Abbadi, a member of parliament from Maliki's Dawa Party. The Sadr City cease-fire is a "good sign" that shows the Iranians "putting pressure on the militants there."
"The Iranians have a direct role with the Mahdi Army," says Mr. Abbadi, "and the Iraqi government has decided it won't accept that role at this point."
Prior to that visit, in late March, Soleimani intervened with Sadr to halt the fighting in the southern city of Basra, stopping the violence just one day after a personal face-to-face request from Talabani.
But it is details of a second Talabani-Soleimani meeting just days later, around April 4, between two men who have known each other for more than two decades, that caught Iraqi and US attention.
Doubt on the US side runs deep, though Soleimani listed Iranian aims and even "common goals with the United States" in Iraq that virtually mirror stated US policy points, according to the description of the meeting.
"When we first saw it, we thought it was too good to be true," says the American official who provided details of the talks. "But there are so many layers of gray."
Among them, how to quantify Iran's compliance when much of the intelligence includes the discovery of caches of weapons – some of the materiel from Iran – that could have arrived in Iraq anytime this year or before. Or how to weigh the interrogations of a handful of Iraqi militants caught by US forces last year, who are purported to have said they received training – sometimes from Lebanese Hezbollah instructors – in Iran.
Iran denies those charges. And during a press conference a week ago, as Maj. Gen. Kevin Bergner provided a precise accounting of well over 25,000 items from recently found weapons caches, he surprisingly did not once mention Iran.
US officials say they are waiting for evidence of a change in Iran's behavior in Iraq, and will be watching for the results of a commission set up by Maliki to examine US charges.
"It's a very high-level committee that's going to make a deliberation and have a discussion with the Iranians on that," says Rear Adm. Patrick Driscoll, a US spokesman.
In this context, the conciliatory tone of Soleimani's meeting with Talabani surprised Iraqi and US officials alike.
"We all must work together – Iraq, Iran, and the United States – to stabilize the situation," the Iraqi president said Soleimani told him. He declared Iran's unequivocal support for the Maliki government, for its efforts to dismantle all militias, and Iran's support for the unity of Iraq.
Sadr was now the biggest threat to peace in Iraq, Soleimani said, echoing past Pentagon assessments. "We now recognize [that] Sadrists have gotten outside anyone's control" which is a "dangerous development for Iraq, for Iran and for all Shia," he indicated, according to the description. Iran could not control Sadr even in Iran, where the cleric is currently taking advanced religious training, and his return to Iraq would "be a big danger."
Iran's "only demand," Soleimani is said to have told Talabani, was that the anti-Iranian group Mujahideen-e Khalq (MEK or MKO), some 3,400 of whose militants still reside under US guard at Camp Ashraf, be forced to leave Iraq. US and Iraqi officials, too, have long been looking for ways to disband the camp.
Soleimani also, according to the official, said that Iran would "not stand in the way of [Iraqi] efforts to negotiate an agreement with the US," which he termed a "good thing for Iraq," referring to a deal on the long-term status of American troops in Iraq.
But hard-line newspapers in Tehran on Monday published denunciations of such a "humiliating" deal, accusing Maliki of giving in to American demands.
"The US-cooked agreement turns Iraq into a full-fledged colony, so that Iraqi officials will be totally powerless but American[s] will have full power to commit any action they want," the Jomhuri-e Islami newspaper wrote, according to the Associated Press.