April 29, 2008

The Most Powerful Man in Iraq?

A friend of Dr. iRack's passed along an interesting McClatchy piece on Brig. Gen. Qassem Suleimani, the commander of the Quds Force, the Iranian paramilitary and espionage organization that has been the focus of much U.S. and Iraqi government attention of late. The story is part of the growing drum beat of Iran stories Dr. iRack has pointed to this week (see here and here). There is clearly a concerted effort underway by the Bush administration (which began during the April Petraeus/Crocker testimony and President Bush's April 10th speech) to prime the media pump and ratchet up the perceived threat posed by Iran's "malign" activities in Iraq (although the truth may be a bit more complicated).

Suleimani has reportedly been the point man for Iranian attempts to calibrate violence in Iraq to serve Tehran's interests, intervening to de-escalate intra-Shia fighting in Basra, while providing lethal assistance to rank-and-file JAM and "special groups" combating U.S. forces in Baghdad.

"Whether we like him (Suleimani) or not, whether Americans like him or not, whether Iraqis like him or not, he is the focal point of Iranian policy in Iraq," said a senior Iraqi official who asked not to be identified so he could speak freely. "The Quds Force have played it all, political, military, intelligence, economic. They are Iranian foreign policy in Iraq."

McClatchy reported on March 30 that Suleimani intervened to halt the fighting between mostly Shiite Iraqi security forces and radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al Sadr's Mahdi Army militia in the southern city of Basra. Iraqi officials now confirm that in addition to that meeting, Iraqi President Jalal Talabani personally met Suleimani at a border crossing to make a direct appeal for help. . . .

In Iraq, Iran's chief ally has been the Badr Organization, formerly the paramilitary wing of what's now the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq, the country's largest Shiite political party. During the Iran-Iraq war, Badr operated as a wing of the Iranian military; after the toppling of Saddam, Badr members infiltrated the security forces and were believed to be responsible for torturing and killing jailed Sunnis.

U.S. military officials also charge that Suleimani has brought in Hezbollah fighters to train Iraqi Shiite cells, which the Americans call [JAM] "special groups," that specialize in attacking American forces.

The U.S. officials said that Suleimani's organization is the main source of the EFPs planted by the "special groups" and other Shiite militias.

In other words, Suleimani is a (perhaps the) key player in the the multi-layered chess game Iran is playing in Iraq. And his prominence demonstrates the net increase in Iranian influence in Iraq caused by the war itself:

Suleimani's role in Iraq illustrates how President Bush's decision to topple Saddam has enabled Shiite, Persian Iran to extend its influence in Iraq, frustrating U.S, aims there, alarming America's Sunni Arab allies in the Persian Gulf and prompting new Israeli fears about Iran's ambitions.

Iraq has become a battleground between Bush's vision of a secular, multiethnic, Western-oriented democracy and the aims of Suleimani and Iranian Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei, to whom he reports.

In other Iran-is-the-greatest-threat-ever news, Marc Lynch over at Abu Aardvark has been reading the Arab press closely (as usual), and he has turned a critical eye toward an increasing volume of charges from Iraqi Awakening groups and Saudi Arabia that Iran is helping AQI. Dr. iRack has no doubt that Iran is playing as many angles as possible, but we should not hype the Iran-AQI link without more "smoking gun" proof than these self-serving allegations. After all, we know what happened the last time we hyped the operational link between a card carring Middle Eastern "axis of evil" member and AQ--it didn't work out so well and created a self-fulfilling prophecy of increased AQ and Iranian influence. Let's try to avoid making that mistake again.