Monday, April 30, 2007

Is Iraq a reliable ally -- for Iran?

Depending on how this turns out, we may be getting closer to actual proof of Iranian complicity in arming Iraqi militias.

The American military said Friday that it had detained four Iraqi men suspected of helping smuggle deadly homemade bombs from Iran to Iraq and taking guerrillas from Iraq to Iran for training.

The men were detained in the morning during an operation in Sadr City, a vast Shiite neighborhood in eastern Baghdad whose residents are mostly loyal to the radical Shiite cleric Moktada al-Sadr.

For now there are a couple of problems. They weren't caught crossing into Iraq from Iran; they were caught in Baghdad, in the Sadr City slum. And the suspects are Iraqis, not Iranians. So it's hard to say why they think they're connected to arms smuggling.

It would also indicate that if Iran is arming anyone, it's the Shiite militias -- many of whom are loyal to politicians that support the current Shiite-led Iraqi government. Which creates a whole new set of questions about the reliability of that government.

That reliability was called into question anew yesterday, when U.S. military officials complained that Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's office was responsible for the sacking of 16 Army and police commanders, most of them Sunni. While some of the firings appeared to be for cause, several of the fired officers were considered to be among the more able commanders. Their apparent crime: Being too aggressive in combatting Shiite militias. Among the victims:

Maj. Gen. Abdulla Mohammed Khamis al-Dafi is a Sunni who commands the 9th Iraqi Army Division, based in Baghdad, and is responsible for eastern Baghdad, home to such predominantly Shiite districts as Sadr City. On April 23, he told U.S. military officials he was determined to resign because of repeated "interference" from the prime minister's staff, according to portions of a report on the situation that was read to The Washington Post....

Another national police battalion commander, Col. Nadir Abd Al-Razaq Abud al-Jaburi, has been "known to pass accurate and actionable intelligence" about the Mahdi Army, the report said, adding that U.S. military officials describe him "as professional, non-sectarian, and focused on gaining support of the populace." Yet he was detained April 6 under an Interior Ministry warrant for allegedly supporting Sunni insurgents, the document said.

The report also outlines the case of Lt. Col. Ahmad Yousif Ibrahim Kjalil, a Sunni battalion commander in the 6th Iraqi Army Division, based in Baghdad. He was allegedly fired by Jaidri but reinstated with another general's help. "He eventually resigned after at least five attempts on his life and one attempt on his children," the report said.

Col. Ali Fadil Amran Khatab al-Abedi, a Sunni who leads the 2nd Battalion, 5th Brigade of the 6th Iraqi Army Division, was ordered arrested by the prime minister's office on April 17, the report said. Lt. Col. Emad Kahlif Abud al-Mashadani, a Sunni commander with the 1st Iraqi National Police Division, was detained April 15, the report said.

The Iraqi government denies any impropriety, but U.S. military officials see it differently.

"Their only crimes or offenses were they were successful" against the Mahdi Army, a powerful Shiite militia, said Brig. Gen. Dana J.H. Pittard, commanding general of the Iraq Assistance Group, which works with Iraqi security forces. "I'm tired of seeing good Iraqi officers having to look over their shoulders when they're trying to do the right thing."

This calls into question not only where that government's interests lie, but also its commitment to hit the political and military milestones sought by Bush, much less the stricter ones demanded by Congressional Democrats. And that, in turn, raises serious questions about the viability of our whole venture there.

To be fair, al-Maliki has a difficult task. But that just means the problem is that much more intractable:

Col. Ehrich Rose, chief of the Military Transition Team with the 4th Iraqi Army Division, who has spent several years working with foreign armies, said the Iraqi officer corps is riddled with divergent loyalties to different sects, tribes and political groups.

"The Iraqi army, as far as capability goes, I'd stack them up against just about any Latin American army I've dealt with," he said. "However, the politicization of their officer corps is the worst I've ever seen."

I, for one, see little point in trying to save a country that is so mired in corruption it can't be bothered to save itself. Has Iraq reached that point? Yes, long ago. The question now is whether it can and will change its stripes.

Which is where the benchmarks come in. But Bush, allergic to anything that even hints at accountability, doesn't want to enforce them. Which makes them simply meaningless suggestions. At best they constitute indirect pressure, based on the Iraqi government's knowledge that it cannot be certain of continued U.S. support after January 2009. Which just means wasting another year and a half before we start getting serious in Iraq.

All of this helps explain why King Abdullah of Saudi Arabia has declined to meet with al-Maliki.

The Saudi leader's decision reflects the growing tensions between the oil-rich regional giants, the deepening skepticism among Sunni leaders in the Middle East about Iraq's Shiite-dominated government, and Arab concern about the prospects of U.S. success in Iraq, the sources said. The Saudi snub also indicates that the Maliki government faces a creeping regional isolation unless it takes long-delayed actions, Arab officials warn.

Abdullah's apparent reasoning: Why meet with someone you suspect is well on his way to becoming an Iranian pawn? Better to send a sharp signal of your dissatisfaction than attempt to keep putting lipstick on this pig. Coupled with Abdullah's recent description of our presence in Iraq as an "illegitimate foreign occupation", the message couldn't be louder or clearer.

One can look to the election of al-Maliki as a triumph of our commitment to an independent Iraq, since we did not interfere in the election or try to undermine him afterward, despite him not doing a great job of representing our interests.

Okay, yeah; good for us. We're fabulous, idealistic and high-minded.

But having said that, we still have to look at things in Iraq from the perspective of our own national interest. And if the Iraqi government continues to tilt toward Iran and refuses to take any serious steps either to share power with Sunnis or rein in the militias and rampant corruption, why are we there? "Keeping a lid on a civil war" is part of the answer, of course, but by itself it's not a good enough one.

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