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Iraq: Latest U.S. Charges On Iran Raise Tensions

By Sumedha Senanayake

July 4, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- The U.S. military announced on July 2 that it had arrested a senior Hizbollah operative in the southern city of Al-Basrah on March 20 and that he had admitted to working with the Quds Force, a secret military wing linked to Iran's Islamic Revolution Guard Corps (IRGC).

The operative, Ali Musa Duqduq, also reportedly indicated that he had assisted in planning and carrying out an attack on a military base in Karbala on January 20 that killed five U.S. soldiers.

U.S. Brigadier-General Kevin Bergner said Duqduq was the liaison between the Quds Force and a breakaway Shi'ite group that actually carried out the Karbala attack. This group was supposedly headed by Qays al-Khaz'ali, a former spokesman for radical Shi'ite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr.

Bergner noted that given the sophistication of the Karbala attack, where fighters dressed in U.S. security uniforms to bypass several checkpoints; the fighters "could not have conducted this complex operation without the support and direction of the Quds Force." And by extension, singling out the Quds Force means that Bergner is strongly implying the Iranian leadership must have had prior knowledge to the operation.

In addition, Duquq reportedly acknowledged that the Quds Force and Hizbollah operated camps near Tehran to train Iraqi fighters that were later sent back to Iraq to carry out attacks. He apparently claimed that approximately 20 to 60 fighters were being trained at any given time.

A Long Litany Of Accusations

The charges are not the first time the United States has accused Iranian-linked agents of operating in Iraq. On January 11, U.S. forces arrested five Iranians in the northern city of Irbil, accusing them of having links to the Quds Force. Not only does Tehran deny these accusations, it denies the existence of the Quds Force.

However, the recent revelations paint the most detailed picture publicly released of Iran's alleged indirect military involvement in Iraq.

Duqduq's reported confession would seem to support the notion that the Iraq conflict is being turned into a proxy war between Shi'ite-dominated Iran and Sunni-dominated Saudi Arabia, with U.S. forces caught in the middle.

U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Ryan Crocker expressed concerns about alleged Quds Force involvement in Iraq during a May 28 press conference in Baghdad, after a meeting with his Iranian counterpart, Hasan Kazemi.

"I laid out before the Iranians a number of our direct specific concerns about their behavior in Iraq, their support for militias that are fighting both the Iraqi security forces and coalition forces," Crocker said. "The fact that a lot of the explosives and ammunition that are used by these groups are coming in from Iran, that such activities led by the IRGC Quds Force needed to cease, and that we would be looking for results."

Pitting Iran Against Saudi Arabia

At the same time, there has been much speculation in the regional and international press concerning the issue of alleged Saudi support for Sunni fighters in Iraq, which Riyadh purportedly sees as a counterweight to Iranian-backed Shi'ite militias. Indeed, a Shi'ite-dominated Iraq would be direct threat to Saudi Arabia, influencing the kingdom's sizable and long-repressed Shi'ite minority.

On November 29, 2006, the then-director of the Saudi National Security Assessment Project, Nawaf Obaid, published an opinion piece in "The Washington Post" suggesting that if the United States withdrew its troops from Iraq, Saudi Arabia would arm Sunni Arabs to counter Iran's alleged support of Shi'ite militias in Iraq. Obaid was subsequently fired for his comments.

Two weeks later, on December 13, 2006, "The New York Times" reported that Saudi Arabia would intervene on behalf of Iraq's Sunni Arabs if the United States prematurely pulls out of Iraq. Saudi King Abdullah bin Abd al-Aziz allegedly made the suggestion to U.S. Vice President Dick Cheney when the latter was in Riyadh on November 25.

An escalation by Iran and Saudi Arabia could eventually lead to a broader regional conflict that could destabilize the Persian Gulf region. The bipartisan Iraq Study Group underscored this danger when it warned that regional states "may take active steps to limit Iran's influence, steps that could lead to an intraregional conflict."

The Sunni-Shi'a Divide

The new accusations that the Quds Force has been training Shi'ite militias will not come as a surprise to Iraq's Sunni Arab community. One of the major grievances Sunni leaders have repeatedly expressed about the post-Hussein Iraqi government is its clear tilt toward Shi'ite Iran. A tilt, Sunnis claim, that has pushed the Shi'ite-led government in Baghdad to further marginalize Iraq's Sunni population.

Indeed, the aim of the so-called Iraqi armed resistance -- the nationalist movement that is dominated by Sunnis and ex-Ba'athists -- is not only to end the U.S.-led occupation in Iraq, but also to counter what they see as Iran's dangerous influence in Iraq. The resistance and many Sunni leaders, claim that Iran arms Shi'ite militias with the purpose of killing Sunni Arabs, and the Iraqi government does little more than turn the other way. They point to the government's inability or unwillingness to disarm al-Sadr's militia, the Imam Al-Mahdi Army.

An escalation by Iran and Saudi Arabia could eventually lead to a broader regional conflict that could destabilize the Persian Gulf region. Although the frequency of sectarian killings attributed to Shi'ite militia elements dramatically dropped during the first two months of the U.S. troop "surge" that began in February, bodies, bound and sometimes headless, have recently begun to appear more frequently in and around Baghdad, a sign that the sectarian killings have resumed.

Moreover, Sunnis see themselves as being besieged by rabid anti-Sunni sentiment from the Shi'ite-led government. Legislation to repeal the de-Ba'athification process and allow thousands of ex-Ba'athists to return to their government positions has been met with strident opposition from Shi'ite leaders. The review committee responsible for proposing constitutional amendments has yet to announce its recommendations.

Radicalizing The Sunnis

Last week, an arrest warrant was issued against Sunni lawmaker and Iraqi Culture Minister As'ad al-Hashimi, prompting the Iraqi Accordance Front, the largest Sunni political bloc in parliament, to withdraw its six members from the Iraqi cabinet.

Duqduq's revelations may further radicalize some elements of the Sunni community toward armed resistance. Sunni lawmaker Abd al-Nasir al-Janabi, a member of the Iraqi Accordance Front, told Al-Jazeera satellite television on June 30 that he had resigned from parliament and quit the Iraqi Accordance Front because he felt that the political process had "become a tool of destruction in the hands of the U.S. and Iranian occupation in Iraq." Consequently, al-Janabi decided to join the armed resistance because it was the only option afforded him and "the only way to rescue Iraq from the crisis it is facing."

Although Al-Janabi's position is extreme, it is could be telling. If enough Sunnis lose faith in the political process and accept the notion that change can only be brought about at gunpoint, then all hope for national reconciliation will vanish.

The United States will then have to deal with an even a more fervent Sunni armed resistance, re-energized Shi'ite militias, and the threat from Al-Qaeda-linked foreign fighters. The ensuing scenario could push the U.S. military deeper into the Iraq predicament and eventually lead to the disintegration of the nation.

Copyright (c) 2007. RFE/RL, Inc. Reprinted with the permission of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 1201 Connecticut Ave., N.W. Washington DC 20036. www.rferl.org

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