Iran stokes Iraq unrest, U.S. says
Edward Wong, The New York Times:
Iran is pressing Shiite militias here to step up attacks against the American-led forces because of the Israeli assault on Lebanon, the U.S. ambassador to Iraq said Friday.
Iran could foment even more violence as it faces off with the United States and United Nations over its nuclear program in the coming weeks, he added.
The Iranian incitement has led to a surge in bold mortar and rocket attacks on the fortified Green Zone, said the ambassador, Zalmay Khalilzad. READ MORE
The Green Zone, a four-square-mile, or about 10-square-kilometer, area on the west bank of the Tigris River, encloses baroque palaces built by Saddam Hussein that now house the seat of the Iraqi government and the U.S. Embassy, and that are protected by layers of concrete blast walls and concertina wire.
The Shiite guerrillas are members of splinter groups of the Mahdi Army, the powerful militia created by radical Shiite cleric Moktada al-Sadr, Khalilzad said. The Mahdi Army rose up twice against the Americans in 2004.
The groups behind the recent attacks have ties to both Iran and Hezbollah, the Iranian-backed Shiite militia in Lebanon that has been battling Israel for a month, the ambassador added.
"One of the main points of contact is some groups have ties to Hezbollah," Khalilzad said in an interview Friday in his home inside the Green Zone. "I think this is an effort that is continuing, that Iran is seeking to put more pressure, encourage more pressure on the coalition from the forces that they are allied with here, and the same is maybe true of Hezbollah."
Khalilzad's remarks are the first public statements by a senior Bush administration official that directly link violence here in Iraq to the war in Lebanon and Israel, and to growing American pressure over Iran's nuclear program. Until now, U.S. officials have characterized Iranian influence in Iraq in vague terms, and none have publicly drawn a direct connection between Shiite militant groups here and Hezbollah in Lebanon.
Khalilzad's comments also reinforce the observations of some analysts that the rise of the majority Shiites in Iraq, long oppressed by Sunni Arab rulers, is fueling the creation of a "Shiite crescent" across the Middle East, with groups in Iraq, Iran and Lebanon working together against common enemies, whether they be the United States, Israel or Sunni Arab nations.
But Khalilzad insisted that the most powerful Shiite leaders here had not yet pushed for more attacks against the Americans, even though Iran would like them to. That includes Sadr, he said.
"Generally the Shia leadership here have behaved more as Iraqi patriots and have not reacted in the way that perhaps the Iranians and Hezbollah might want them to," Khalilzad said.
Iran and Hezbollah want the Shiite leaders "to behave by mobilizing against the coalition or taking actions against the coalition," he added.
At least in rhetoric, the top Shiite leaders in Iraq have forcefully condemned the Israeli assault on Lebanon, much more so than senior officials in Sunni Arab countries. Furious denunciations have come from Grand Ayatollah Ali al- Sistani, the most revered Shiite cleric here, Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki and the Parliament, which called the Israeli airstrikes "criminal aggression."
When Maliki visited Washington last month, congressional leaders pressed him to denounce Hezbollah as a terrorist group, but Maliki dodged the request.
The mercurial Sadr has come closest of all the Shiite leaders in hinting that Iraqis might take up arms in support of Hezbollah. He said in late July that Iraqis would not "sit by with folded hands" while Lebanon burned, and on Aug. 4 he summoned up to 100,000 followers to an anti-Israel and anti-American rally in Baghdad. Most of those who showed up were angry young men, many swathed in white cloths symbolizing funeral shrouds and some toting Kalashnikovs.
Sympathy with Hezbollah is not limited to the radical fringe. As images of the destruction in Lebanon continue flickering across the Arab television networks, many ordinary Iraqis say they are ready to join the mujahedeen in holy war against American-backed Israel.
Khalilzad said Iran could stoke more violence among the Shiite militias as the end of the month draws nearer.
That is expected to be a time of high tension between Iran and the United States because a UN Security Council resolution gives Iran until Aug. 31 to suspend uranium enrichment or face the threat of economic and diplomatic sanctions. President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of Iran has insisted that his country will pursue its nuclear program.
"The concern that we have is that Iran and Hezbollah would use those contacts that they have with groups and the situation here, use those to cause more difficulties or cause difficulties for the coalition," Khalilzad said.
If the United Nations passes another resolution against Iran after the Aug. 31 deadline, he said, that "could increase the pressure on Iran," and "Iran could respond to by further pressing its supporters or people that it has ties with or people that it controls to increase the pressure on the coalition, not only in Iraq but elsewhere as well."
Some military analysts cast the Israel- Hezbollah war as a proxy struggle between the United States and Iran, and prominent conservatives in Washington have called for military action against Iran. William Kristol, editor of The Weekly Standard, an influential conservative magazine, said on Fox News last month that the Bush administration had been "coddling" Iran and that the war in Lebanon and Israel represented "a great opportunity to begin resuming the offensive against the terrorist groups."
American and British forces in Iraq have stepped up operations recently against elements of Sadr's Mahdi Army, raiding hideouts and engaging in pitched battles in the Sadr City district of Baghdad and in the area around Basra, the southern port city. Last Monday, American forces called in an air attack during a raid in Sadr City. Maliki, who depends on Sadr for political support against rival Shiites, later denounced the raid, saying he had never approved it and that the Americans had used "excessive force."