April 25, 2008

To the Brink in Iraq

I hate to say I told you so . . . but I told you so. A few days ago, Dr. iRack dropped the news that MNF-I was likely to roll-out new evidence of Iranian support to elements of JAM. This rumor was confirmed by Admiral Mullen today during a news conference. General Petraeus is likely to give the briefing next week. According to the U.S. military, operations in Basra uncovered evidence of recent support (arms, training) from the Iranian Quds Force to JAM factions. At the same time, at least some of the rockets and other weapons launched at the Green Zone and used against U.S. forces in Sadr City bear Iranian hallmarks. Mullen expressed hopes that diplomatic steps would resolve the crisis, but he also highlighted his outrage at Iranian actions and suggested that preparations were being made for possible U.S. military strikes should they be necessary. Iran has already backed off from its support of JAM in Basra; these not-so-veiled threats from Mullen are clearly aimed at getting Iran to do the same in Baghdad.

Not to be outdone, Moqtada al-Sadr issued a new sermon on Friday calling on his supporters to avoid attacking their Iraqi "brothers" but to continue their attacks on the American "occupiers." He reiterated his threat to engage in "open war until liberation" if his forces continued to be attacked, but clarifed that the threat was specifically aimed at the coalition.

OK, no need to panic. If Iran backs off and Sadr is given a way to save face, this might all work out. And given the recent cross-ethnic and cross-sectarian rallying behind Maliki for standing up to JAM, the action-reaction spiral that began so clumsily and rashly in Basra and spread to Baghdad might (I emphasize might) actually turn out to be a net positive. It might (I emphasize might) foster greater Shia-Sunni-Kurd cooperation and, by showing Maliki's willingness to go after JAM, provide the prime minister with some cred with Sunnis in the lead up to an impending offensive in Mosul to go after remnants of AQI.

That's the glass-half-full scenario. The glass-half-empty scenario is that brinksmanship on all sides will produce an escalation inside Iraq (between the United States and its Iraqi allies and JAM) and outside Iraq (between the United States and Iran).

Dr. iRack thinks none of the parties want this kind of escalation; it serves nobody's rational interests. Iran doesn't want a death sprial among the Shia in Iraq and Tehran is not itching for a big-time war with the United States. For his part, Sadr knows that he would likely lose a large number of fighters in an all-out battle with the coalition, and calling a formal end to his "freeze" would doom his prospects for fully entering Iraqi politics (because it would trigger a decision to exclude his movement from the provincial elections).

The bad news is that the history of international politics (and the entire history of the Iraq conflict) is littered with examples of groups and countries stumbling into war even when nobody really wanted it to happen.

Update: A strong piece in the NYT on the impending briefing on Iranian involvement.

Some intelligence and administration officials said Iran seemed to have carefully calibrated its involvement in Iraq over the last year, in contrast to what President Bush and other American officials have publicly portrayed as an intensified Iranian role.

It remains difficult to draw firm conclusions about the ebb and flow of Iranian arms into Iraq, and the Bush administration has not produced its most recent evidence.

But interviews with more than two dozen military, intelligence and administration officials showed that while shipments of arms had continued in recent months despite an official Iranian pledge to stop the weapons flow, they had not necessarily increased.

Iran, the officials said, has shifted tactics to distance itself from a direct role in Iraq since the American military captured 20 Iranian operatives inside Iraq in December 2006 and January 2007. Ten of those Iranians remain in American custody.

Since then, Iran seems to have focused instead on training Iraqi Shiite fighters inside Iran, though the exact number remains unclear. Some officials said only handfuls of fighters at a time had recently trained in Iran. At the same time, Iran has sought to retain political and economic influence over a variety of Shiite factions, not just the most extremist militias, known as “special groups.”

. . . There is evidence, officials said, that Iran may not have control over the various Shiite groups it had armed. According to a senior American official, Iran has at times been angered when Iranian weapons were used for intra-Shiite fighting, rather than for killing Americans.