Behind Detainee Release, a US-Iraqi Conflict on Iran

The release Friday of five Iranians held by the U.S. military in Iraq for
two and a half years highlights the long-simmering conflict between the U.S.
and Iraqi views of Iranian policy in Iraq and of the role of its Islamic Revolutionary
Guard Corps (IRGC) there.

For the Barack Obama administration, as for the George W. Bush administration
before it, the Iranian detainees had become symbols of what Washington steadfastly
insisted was an Iranian effort to use the IRGC to destabilize the Iraqi regime.

But high-ranking Shi’ite and Kurdish officials of the government of Iraqi
Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki had never shared the U.S. view of the IRGC or
of the Iranian role. They have acted on the premise that Iran is interested
in ensuring that a friendly Shi’ite regime would remain in power.

State Department spokesman Ian Kelly expressed concern that the five Iranian
detainees being released were "associated with" the Quds Force of
the Iranian and could endanger U.S. troops in Iraq.

The idea that the Quds Force was fighting a "proxy war" against
U.S. and Iraqi troops was the justification for the George W. Bush administration’s
decision in late 2006 to target any Iranian found in Iraq who could plausibly
be linked to the IRGC.

Three of the five Iranian detainees, who had been grabbed in a January 2007
raid, were working in an Iranian liaison office that had been operating in
the Kurdistan capital of Irbil. The U.S. military, hinting that it actually
had little information about the Iranians seized, said they were "suspected
of being closely tied to activities targeting Iraqi and coalition forces."

Kurdish Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari tried to get the U.S. officials to
understand that the Iranians seized in Irbil were not part of a "clandestine
network" but were working on visas and other paperwork for travel by Iraqis
to Iran. Zebari explained that they were working for the IRGC because that
institution has the responsibility for controlling Iran’s borders.

After Mahmoud Farhadi was kidnapped by the U.S. military from a hotel in the
Kurdish city of Suleimaniya in September 2007, a U.S. military spokesman made
the spectacular claim that Farhadi was an IRGC commander responsible for all
Iranian operations inside Iraq.

Kurdish officials acknowledged Farhadi’s IRGC affiliation, but the Kurdish
president of Iraq, Jalal Talabani, publicly confirmed that Farhadi was a civilian
official of the neighboring Iranian province of Kermanshah on a "commercial
mission with the knowledge of the federal government in Baghdad and the government
of Kurdistan."

Although Farhadi had indeed been a military commander at one time, the Kurds
pointed out that he was now carrying out only civilian functions.

Iraqi officials also rejected the idea that the IRGC’s Quds Force itself was
hostile to the Iraqi regime. They had personal relationships with Quds Force
commander Brig. Gen. Qassem Soleimani, and they acknowledged that he had ties
with all the Shi’ite factions in Iraq.

They knew that Iran had trained officers of Shi’ite nationalist cleric Moqtada
al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army and provided some financial support to Sadr. But they
also believed that the purpose of that relationship was to exert influence
on Sadr in the interest of peace and stability.

After Sadr declared a unilateral cease-fire in late August 2007, the Maliki
regime, including Kurdish Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari, argued publicly
and privately to Bush administration officials that Iran had used its influence
on Sadr to get him to agree to such a cease-fire. They used the argument to
urge the Bush administration to release the Iranian detainees.

Even the Bush administration itself was divided sharply over the Iraqi government
argument that Iranian influence on Sadr was benign. The State Department was
inclined to accept the Iraqi argument and privately urged the release of the
five in fall 2007.

In December 2007 the State Department’s coordinator on Iraq, David Satterfield,
went so far as to agree publicly that the Sadr ceasefire "had to be attributed
to an Iranian policy decision."

But Gen. David Petraeus, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, strongly resisted
that conclusion, insisting that it was U.S. military operations against Sadr’s
Mahdi Army that had brought about the cease-fire. The internal debate was resolved
in favor of Petraeus, and the five Iranian detainees were not released.

A series of events in 2008, however, showed that the Iraqi regime was much
more comfortable relying on personal relationships with of the Quds Force than
on U.S. military might to deal with the problem of the Mahdi Army.

First, Maliki refused in March to allow U.S. ground forces to participate
in an operation against the Mahdi Army in Basra. Then, only a few days into
the battle, the government turned to the Iranian Quds Force commander, Gen.
Qassem Suleimani, to lean on Sadr and broker a cease-fire in Basra only a few
days into a major battle there.

Iraqi President Talabani met with Suleimani March 28-29, 2008 at an Iran-Iraq
border crossing and asked him to stop the fighting in Basra. Suleimani intervened
to bring about a cease-fire within 24 hours, according to a report by McClatchy
newspapers April 28, 2008.

And in a second meeting a few days later, revealed by Scott Peterson of the
Christian Science Monitor May 14, 2008, Suleimani called Sadr the biggest
threat to peace in Iraq. The Quds Force commander vowed support for the Maliki
regime and referred to "common goals with the United States."

In a gesture to Washington, Suleimani asked Talabani to tell Petraeus that
his portfolio included not only Iraq but Gaza and Lebanon, and that he was
willing to send a team to Baghdad to "discuss any issue" with the

Petraeus refused to talk with Suleimani, according to Peterson’s account,
supposedly on the ground that his offer was part of an Iranian bid to become
an "indispensable power broker" in Iraq and thus establish Iranian
influence there.

But Petraeus understood that Suleimani had indeed achieved just such a position
of power in Iraq as arbiter of conflict among Shi’ite factions. "The level
of their participation, centrality of their role, should give everyone pause,"
Petraeus told journalist and author Linda Robinson. "The degree to which
they have their hands on so many lines was revealed very starkly during this

In late April, Petraeus tried to get the Maliki regime to endorse a document
that detailed Iranian efforts to "foment instability" in Iraq. But
instead an Iraqi government delegation returned from Iran in early May saying
they had seen evidence disproving the U.S. charges.

Then, Maliki again used Gen. Suleimani to reach an agreement with Sadr which
ended a major military campaign in Sadr City just as the United States was
about to launch a big ground operation there but also allowed government troops
to patrol in the former Mahdi Army stronghold.

Within weeks, the power of the Mahdi Army had already begun to wane visibly.
Militia members in Sadr City were no longer showing up to collect paychecks,
and the Iraqi army had taken over the Mahdi Army headquarters in one neighborhood.

The Maliki regime saw that Suleimani had made good on his word. Prime Minister
Maliki then began calling for the withdrawal of all U.S. troops by the end
of 2010. He had opted to depend on Iranian influence rather than U.S. protection.

Nevertheless, the U.S. military has continued to maintain the pretense that
it is pushing back Iranian influence in Iraq. The successor to Petraeus, Gen.
Ray Odierno, continues to denounce Iran periodically for aiding Shi’ite insurgents.

(Inter Press Service)

Author: Gareth Porter

Gareth Porter writes for Inter Press Service.