April 30, 2008

Good Cop, Bad Cop

Dr. iRack has admired Tina Susman's terrific reporting on Iraq for the Los Angeles Times for a while. (Indeed, throughout the war, the LAT has often produced much better reporting than any other paper.) Dr. iRack highly recommends you check out this interesting Susman piece on the Iraqi government's new tone regarding lethal Iranian aid to Shia militants in Iraq. For a long time, the Government of Iraq (GoI) has been reluctant to call out the Iranians publically, but they are now doing so.

Iraq's national security advisor, Mowaffak Rubaie, and Ministry of Defense spokesman Mohammed Askari said caches found in Basra included Iranian-made arms with markings showing they were manufactured in 2008. Rubaie said the government was preparing to present the evidence to the Iranians soon, but he did not say when.

Despite the heated-up rhetoric, neither the United States nor Iraq has said it believes Iran has increased its smuggling of weapons, including rockets and roadside bombs blamed for most U.S. troop deaths. They appear instead to be accusing Iran of not keeping a promise it made late last year to Maliki to reduce activities here.

That raises the question of why the uptick in finger-pointing now.

Rubaie said there was "other evidence" in addition to the apparently new weapons, but he did not say what it was. He and other officials stressed that it was not just the weapons that bothered them, but the "extent" of Iranian involvement in other, unnamed aspects of the conflict.

The U.S. military official suggested that the "thousands" of munitions uncovered in Basra, and the idea that they were being used by extremists allegedly trained by Iran, had been an eye-opener for Iraq's leaders. "Our discussion is now matched by their understanding," he said. "This is the beginning of a change of public discussion among senior Iraqis."

But Iraqi leaders have also clarified that they want the matter to be resolved through talks:

In echoing the Pentagon's latest accusations of Iranian meddling, the Iraqi government has placed itself firmly where it has long said it does not want to be: caught in the middle between Washington and its neighbor to the east.

Baghdad says it agrees with the United States that Iran has continued to supply weapons to anti-government militants in southern Iraq, including arms with markings indicating they were produced this year. On the other hand, the Iraqi government seems eager to send a message to the Bush administration to back off threats of military action and allow Baghdad to pursue diplomatic solutions more quietly with Tehran.

"We are worried about any escalation between the United States and Iran for a simple reason: We are the weakest party in this game," said Sadiq Rikabi, an advisor to Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Maliki. "Our policy for our neighbors is to go to them, face to face, speak with them in a planned, frank and direct way about any problem."

This stance by the GoI serves several purposes simultaneously. First, it can be understood in classic "good cop, bad cop" terms. The United Stats is playing the saber-rattling bad cop, appearing to threaten war with Iran over new evidence of lethal assistance to JAM "special groups." The GoI then steps in and says "we agree," but we think that things should be resolved diplomatically, thus playing the good cop holding the Americans back. Good coercive diplomacy . . . if it works.

Second, increasing anti-Iranian rhetoric may help the Maliki government appeal to Sunni leaders and thereby forge cross-sectarian cooperation on other sticky issues:

Skeptics point out that Iraq has little choice but to follow the lead of Washington, which has long pressured it to confront Shiite-led Iran on its alleged interference. But toeing the Pentagon line also serves to benefit Iraq's Shiite-led government politically. It could placate Sunni Arab lawmakers, who have a deep distrust of Iran and whom Maliki is trying to lure back into the government following a months-long boycott. This would shore up Maliki's support as he does political battle with supporters of Shiite cleric Sadr, whose militiamen are blamed for much of the recent fighting.

Finally, emphasizing Iranian involvement provides a useful public "explanation" for the difficulty U.S. and Iraqi forces have had, thus far, in quelling violence in Sadr City. Blame it on Iran, not Sadr/JAM. Why go this route? Because it allows the United States to maintain the fiction that it is only the "special groups" that are fighting the coalition instead of rank-and-file JAM, thus preserving the illusion that the Sadr "freeze" declared last August--a major (perhaps the major) reason for declining violence during the later part of the "surge" period in 2007--has not collapsed.

In recent days, Iraq's government has followed the United States in stepping up claims that new Iranian-made weapons have been found in the southern city of Basra. The allegations appear to come at a convenient time for both the Shiite-led Iraqi government and its ally, the United States.

With Baghdad still suffering the violent aftereffects of Maliki's offensive against Shiite militias last month, Iranian interference would help explain why Iraqi and U.S. forces have been unable to bring the fighting to a standstill. In the latest clashes, four U.S. soldiers were killed Monday in two separate rocket and mortar attacks in Baghdad.

At the same time, Iranian involvement allows U.S. officials to deflect blame for the fighting from radical Shiite cleric Muqtada Sadr, whom they are counting on to sustain a frayed but officially intact truce he called in August for his Mahdi Army militia. Though privately many soldiers here say the Mahdi militia is involved in the current fighting, publicly, the allegation is that "special groups" who have broken away from Sadr and receive training and aid from Iran are causing the troubles.

Maintiaining this public--but almost certainly factually incorrect--stance is important to give Sadr a way to save face and back down. Again, this is probably a good move . . . if it works.