Hyping Tehran's threat in Iraq, the Bush administration appears moving closer to war, writes Salah Hemeid
Displaying a small cache of munitions and weapons in a hall inside Baghdad's Green Zone Sunday, US army and intelligence officers offered what they claimed to be the most solid evidence yet of an Iranian role in the anti-American insurgency in Iraq. The briefing by officials, who refused to be identified by name, apparently was designed to lend credibility to allegations that Tehran is providing weapons to Shia militants in Iraq.
Some of the weapons, including sophisticated roadside bombs, are believed to have been responsible for the death of around 170 of the 3,400 US-led forces killed in Iraq since the end of combat operations in May 2003. The American officers also claimed that the weapons, manufactured in Iran and allegedly condoned by the "highest levels" of the Iranian government, were primarily intended for use against US troops. The officers said the displayed munitions were but a portion of what they believe the Iranians have been sending to insurgents.
Iran shrugged off the allegation. President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said the accusations were an attempt to hide Washington's own failures and an excuse to prolong the stay of American forces. "Such accusations cannot be relied upon or be presented as evidence," said Foreign Ministry spokesman Mohamed Ali Husseini. "The United States has a long history in fabricating evidence. Such charges are unacceptable," he told a press conference Monday.
Although Iran is widely believed to have been meddling in Iraq's affairs since the end of the war that removed Saddam Hussein from power, the American intelligence allegations seemed to be bizarre. On the one hand, the US has been fighting a Sunni insurgency in Iraq since 2003 that is deeply hostile to Iran. The insurgent groups have repeatedly denounced the Shia-Kurdish dominated Iraqi government as pawns of Iran. It is unlikely that Sunni fighters have received significant quantities of military equipment from Tehran. On the other hand, Shia fighters such as Al-Mahdi army, led by maverick cleric Moqtada Al-Sadr, have never been reported to use such weapons against American or British troops.
The evidence seemed thin and could only have been a defensive manoeuvre meant to drive a wedge into the increasingly cosy relationship between the Shia-led governments in Baghdad and Tehran as the new US-backed Baghdad security plan gets underway. The allegations could also be part of the escalation of US military planning on Iran and attempt to ignite a confrontation over its nuclear ambitions and regional aspirations.
With thousands of troops in the area and two US warship groups moored or near position off the Arabian Gulf coast, the accusations raised suspicions that the Bush administration was trying to build a case for war against Iran, the same way it used allegations of Saddam's weapons of mass destruction and his regime's link to Osama Bin Laden's Al-Qaeda to win support for the US invasion of Iraq.
The weapons disclosure came a day after General David Petraeus, America's new ground commander, assumed duties in Iraq. Petraeus crafted President George W Bush's plan to send some 21,000 more soldiers into Baghdad on the gamble that they will help Iraqi forces to stabilise Iraq. Petraeus's arrival represented a fundamental shift in outlook, taking over from General George Casey, who argued for an eventual drawdown of American forces.
Armed with a reputation of military accomplishments in Iraq -- built on the success in the northern Iraqi city of Tel Afar in 2004 -- Petraeus arrived in Baghdad this week to lead a war that even many of its supporters say is approaching zero hour. As commander of 101st Airborne Division during the war, Petraeus has developed a deep understanding of the principles of guerrilla war and counter- insurgency. Petraeus's strategy is expected to be spreading more troops out in Baghdad, working with Iraqi troops to improve their capabilities, and focussing on systematically securing the capital, neighbourhood by neighbourhood. Instead of hunting insurgents, his emphasis is on reassuring the public with visible security.
Petraeus has been sent out to fix a situation that has deteriorated far beyond the parameters of conventional guerrilla war. If he succeeds, Petraeus could achieve the hero status bestowed on US generals like Eisenhower and Schwarzkopf, but if he fails he will not only hurt the Bush strategy but Iraq will also most certainly descend into the bloody civil war many fear.
Meanwhile, the much-publicised new Baghdad security plan, designed to stop violence between Shias and Sunnis, is already underway. Under the plan, thousands of Iraqi and American troops were deployed in hotspots where they are expected to flush out gunmen, detain insurgents, militiamen, gangsters and death squads so that people can resume normal life.
Some Baghdadis have expressed hope in the latest effort to restore calm. Others are still worried that armed militants, whom the plan intends to target, have learned how to evade major crackdowns. Gunmen on both sides are so entrenched in fighting and the cycle of revenge that establishing real security will take time. And if this week's violence markers any indication, all of Baghdad's population have a long way to go before they rest assured that security is back in the city.
On Monday, explosions ripped though noontime crowds at two downtown marketplaces killing at least 80 Iraqi civilians, crushing buildings and sending a huge cloud of thick black smoke into the sky in the centre of the capital. Markets have frequently been target of suicide and car bomb attacks.
In other violence throughout the capital, mortar shells struck a southwest Baghdad neighbourhood, killing two children and injuring five. Police discovered the bodies of at least six dead Iraqis in western and southern Baghdad. A roadside bomb targeting a police patrol struck a civilian motor vehicle, killing two passengers. Another nine Iraqis were killed and 19 injured when a suicide bomber blew himself up minutes earlier in the nearby Bab Al-Sharji market.