Maliki Stalls US Plan to Frame Iran
by Gareth Porter
Early this month, the George
W. Bush administration's plan to create a new crescendo of accusations against
Iran for allegedly smuggling arms to Shiite militias in Iraq encountered not
just one but two setbacks.
The government of Prime
Minister Nouri al-Maliki
refused to endorse US charges of Iranian involvement in arms smuggling to the
Mahdi Army, and a plan to show off a huge collection of Iranian arms captured
in and around Karbala
had to be called off after it was discovered that none of the arms were of
The news media's failure to
report that the arms captured from Shiite militiamen in Karbala did not include a single Iranian weapon
shielded the US
military from a much bigger blow to its anti-Iran strategy.
The Bush administration and
top Iraq commander Gen.
David Petraeus had plotted a sequence of events that
would build domestic US
political support for a possible strike against Iran
over its "meddling" in Iraq and especially its alleged
export of arms to Shiite militias.
The plan was keyed to a
briefing document to be prepared by Petraeus on the
alleged Iranian role in arming and training Shiite militias that would be
surfaced publicly after the al-Maliki government had
endorsed it and it used to accuse Iran publicly.
Chairman of the Joint Chiefs
of Staff, Adm. Mike Mullen, told reporters on Apr. 25 that Petraeus
was preparing a briefing to be given "in the next couple of weeks"
that would provide detailed evidence of "just how far Iran is reaching
into Iraq to foment instability." The centerpiece of the Petraeus document, completed in late April, was the claim
that arms captured in Basra
bore 2008 manufacture dates on them.
US officials also planned to
display Iranian weapons captured in both Basra
to reporters. That sequence of media events would fill the airwaves with
spectacular news framing Iran
as the culprit in Iraq
for several days, aimed at breaking down Congressional and public resistance to
the idea that Iranian bases supporting the meddling would have to be attacked.
But events in Iraq diverged
from the plan. On May 4, after an Iraqi delegation had returned from meetings
in Iran, al-Maliki's spokesman, Ali al-Dabbagh,
said in a news conference that al-Maliki was forming
his own Cabinet committee to investigate the US claims. "We want to find
tangible information and not information based on speculation,"
Another adviser to al-Maliki, Haider Abadi, told the Los Angeles Times' Alexandra Zavis that Iranian officials had given the delegation
evidence disproving the charges. "For us to be impartial, we have to
investigate," Abadi said.
made it clear that the government considered the US evidence of Iranian government
arms smuggling insufficient. "The proof we have is weapons which are shown
to have been made in Iran,"
al-Dabbagh said in a separate interview with Reuters. "We
want to trace back how they reached [Iraq], who is using them, where are
they getting it."
Senior US military
officials were clearly furious with al-Maliki for
backtracking on the issue. "We were blindsided by this," one of them
Then the Bush
administration's campaign on Iranian arms encountered another serious problem.
The Iraqi commander in Karbala had announced on May 3
that he had captured a large quantity of Iranian arms in and around that city.
Earlier the US military had
said that it was up to the Iraqi government to display captured Iranian
weapons, but now an Iraqi commander was eager to show off such weapons. Petraeus' staff alerted US
media to a major news event in which the captured Iranian arms in Karbala
would be displayed and then destroyed.
But when US munitions experts went to Karbala to see the alleged cache of Iranian
weapons, they found nothing that they could credibly link to Iran.
The US command had
to inform reporters that the event had been canceled, explaining that it had
all been a "misunderstanding." In his press briefing May 7, Brig.
Gen. Kevin Bergner gave some details of the captured weapons in Karbala
but refrained from charging any Iranian role.
The cancellation of the
planned display was a significant story, in light of the well-known intention
of the US command to convict
on the arms smuggling charge. Nevertheless, it went completely unreported in
the world's news media.
A report on the Los Angeles
Times' Blog "Babylon & Beyond" by Baghdad correspondent
Tina Susman was the only small crack in the media
blackout. The story was not carried in the Times itself, however.
The real significance of the
captured weapons collected in Karbala
was not the obvious US
political embarrassment over an Iraqi claim of captured Iranian arms that
turned out to be false. It was the deeper implication of the arms that were
Karbala is one of Iraq's eight
largest cities, and it has long been the focus of major fighting between the
Mahdi Army and its Shiite foes. Moqtada al-Sadr declared his ceasefire last August after a major
battle there, and fighting had resumed there with the government operation in Basra in March. Thousands
of Mahdi Army fighters have fought there over the past year.
The official list of weapons
captured in Karbala
includes nine mortars, four antiaircraft missiles, 45, RPGs
and 800 RPG missiles and 570 roadside explosive devices. The failure to find a
single item of Iranian origin among these heavier weapons, despite the deeply
entrenched Mahdi Army presence over many months,
suggests that the dependence of the Mahdi Army on arms manufactured in Iran is
actually quite insignificant.
The Karbala weapons cache also raises new questions
about the official US
narrative about the Shiite militia's use of explosively formed penetrators (EFPs) as an Iranian
phenomenon. Among the captured weapons mentioned by Gen. Jawdat
were what he called "150 antitank bombs," as
distinguished from ordinary roadside explosive devices.
An "antitank bomb"
is a device that is capable of penetrating armor, which has been introduced to
public as the EFP. The US
claim that Iran was behind
their growing use in Iraq
was the centerpiece of the Bush administration's case for an Iranian
"proxy war" against the US in early 2007.
Soon after that, however,
senior US military officials
conceded that EFPs were in fact being manufactured in
Iraq itself, although they
insisted that EFPs alleged exported by Iran were
superior to the homemade version.
The large cache of EFPs in Karbala which are admitted to be
non-Iranian in origin underlines the reality that the Mahdi Army procures its EFPs from a variety of sources.
But for the media blackout
of the story, the large EFP discovery in Karbala would have further undermined the
credibility of the US
military's line on Iran's
export of the EFPs to Iraqi fighters.
Apparently understanding the
potential political difficulties that the Karbala EFP
find could present, Gen. Bergner omitted any reference to them in his otherwise
accurate accounting of the Karbala weapons.
(Inter Press Service)