Friday, September 15, 2006

Iran Biggest Threat to U.S. in Iraq

Sheldon Alberts, National Post:
As President George W. Bush tells it, the biggest reason U.S. troops must remain in Iraq is to protect it from takeover by Osama bin Laden and his murderous band of Islamic jihadists.

"If we yield Iraq to men like bin Laden, our enemies will be emboldened," he stressed during his speech this week marking the fifth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks.

The spectre of bin Laden plotting against the United States from new headquarters in Baghdad may have the power to sway voters -- call it the bogeyman effect -- but right now the biggest threat to U.S. interests in Iraq comes not from al-Qaeda insurgents but Iran. READ MORE

Witness the remarkable meeting this week in Tehran between Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the Iranian President, and Nouri al-Maliki, the Iraqi Prime Minister .

During a red carpet greeting at the presidential palace, Mr. Ahmadinejad beamed like a Cheshire cat as he clasped hands with Mr. Maliki, who looked into the cameras and grinned right back. That image alone -- of Iran's Bush-bashing President chumming it up with the guy who is supposed to be the U.S.'s biggest ally in Iraq -- should have been enough to give officials in Washington heartburn.

But then the two leaders started talking, and the White House really took it on the chin. Mr. Maliki said he had come to Tehran to ask for help to restore stability in Iraq and stated "even in security issues, there is no barrier in the way of co-operation."

Seizing on the chance to embarrass his nemesis Mr. Bush, Mr. Ahmadinejad, declared his relations with Baghdad "excellent" and said Iran would be happy to "establish complete security in Iraq, because Iraq's security is Iran's security."

Though the Iran-Iraq summit was a public relations coup for Mr. Ahmadinejad, it also underscored Tehran's growing political clout with Iraq's Shiite-dominated government and the violent Shiite militias competing for power in the country. According to a report by the Congressional Research Service, Iran has acquired "substantial" influence with the United Iraqi Alliance, the Shiite bloc that won a majority of seats in last winter's election. Through a series of bilateral agreements tightening transportation and energy links, Iran has become -- along with the U.S. -- a de facto mentor of Iraq's fledgling "unity" government.

"It's unlikely that Iran's influence will fade unless the Shiite Islamist factions in Iraq were to somehow suffer diminished political power," says Kenneth Katzman, a Middle East specialist with Congress's research arm.

Some of those Iraqi-Iranian political ties predate U.S. involvement in Iraq. Many members of Mr. Maliki's Da'wa Party were sheltered by Iran while Saddam Hussein was in power and have maintained close relations with Tehran.

But Iran has also sought to curry favour with anti-U.S. Shiites such as radical cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, possibly supplying his and other militias with money and weapons.

By supporting Iraq economically, Tehran's leaders aim to have a friendly government in Baghdad that poses no military threat to Iran.

But by also helping arm anti-U.S. militias in Iraq, "Iran is preserving the option of sponsoring militant activity" against U.S. troops if the White House ever launches military attacks against the Iranian regime, says an August report by Chatham House, a London-based foreign policy think tank.

"Iran views Iraq as its own backyard and has now superseded the U.S. as the most influential power there. This influence has a variety of forms but all can be turned against the U.S. presence in Iraq with relative ease."

The most galling development for some U.S. politicians, mostly Democrats, is that Mr. Maliki seems to be tilting ever more away from Washington and toward Tehran.

This year, he infuriated many Americans when he accused U.S. troops of widespread human rights abuses in Iraq. In July, he angered members of Congress by charging Israel with "criminal aggression" in Lebanon, while refusing to denounce Hezbollah, the extremist group sponsored by Iran.

The Bush administration has warned Iran not to interfere in Iraq's internal affairs, but it is not clear whether the White House believes Tehran is usurping its influence with Iraq's government.

"I do not believe that our actions in Iraq, or elsewhere in the region, have contributed to a strengthening of Iran's hand," David Satterfield, senior Iraq adviser to Condoleezza Rice, the Secretary of State, told a congressional hearing this week.

That optimistic assessment is getting harder for lawmakers of every stripe to swallow. Senator Chuck Hagel, a Nebraska Republican, said recently, "Iran probably has more influence in Iraq than we do." Added Democratic Representative Henry Waxman, "It seems to me hard to believe that, if we are successful in our mission, as we now have redefined it, that we're going to have anything other than a government in Iraq that is going to be very dependent on Iran."