US plot to nail Iran backfires

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US plot to nail Iran backfires

Gareth Porter – 2008-05-16


US plot to nail Iran backfires

By Gareth Porter
May 16, 2008

WASHINGTON – The George W Bush administration’s plan to create a new crescendo of accusations against Iran for allegedly smuggling arms to Shi’ite militias in Iraq has encountered not just one but two setbacks.

The government of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki refused to endorse US charges of Iranian involvement in arms smuggling to Shi’ite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army, and a plan to show off a huge collection of Iranian arms captured in and around the central city of Karbala had to be called off after it was discovered that none of the arms was of Iranian origin.

The news media’s failure to report that the arms captured from Shi’ite militiamen in Karbaladid not include a single Iranian weapon shielded the US military from a big blow to its anti-Iran strategy.

The Bush administration and top Iraq commander General David Petraeus had plotted a sequence of events that would build domestic USpolitical support for a possible strike against Iran over its “meddling” in Iraq, and especially its alleged export of arms to Shi’ite militias.

The plan was keyed to a briefing document to be prepared by Petraeus on the alleged Iranian role in arming and training Shi’ite militias that would be revealed to the public after the Maliki government had endorsed it, and that would be used to accuse Iran publicly.

Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Mike Mullen told reporters on April 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 the southern city of Basrabore 2008 manufacture dates on them.

US officials also planned to display to reporters Iranian weapons captured in both Basraand Karbala. That sequence of media events would fill the airwaves for several days with spectacular news framing Iran as the culprit in Iraq, aimed at breaking down US congressional and public resistance to the idea that Iranian bases supporting the meddling would have to be attacked.

But events in Iraq did not follow the script. On May 4, after an Iraqi delegation had returned from meetings in Iran, Maliki’s spokesman, Ali al-Dabbagh, said in a news conference that Maliki was forming his own cabinet committee to investigate the US claims. “We want to find tangible information and not information based on speculation,” he said.

Another adviser to 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.

Dabbagh made it clear the government considered the US evidence of Iranian government arms smuggling to be insufficient. “The proof we want is weapons which are shown to have been made in Iran,” 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 Maliki for backtracking on the issue. “We were blindsided by this,” one of them told Zavis.

Then the Bush administration’s plot encountered another serious problem.

The Iraqi commander in Karbalahad announced on May 3 that he had captured a large quantity of Iranian arms in and around the city. Earlier, the US military had said that it was up to the Iraqi government to display captured Iranian weapons, and now an Iraqi commander was eager to do just that. Petraeus’ staff alerted US media to a major news event in which the captured Iranian arms in Karbalawould be displayed and then destroyed.

But when US munitions experts went to Karbalato see the alleged cache of Iranian weapons, they found nothing 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 on May 7, Brigadier General Kevin Bergner gave some details of the captured weapons in Karbalabut 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 Iran on the arms smuggling charge. Nevertheless, it went unreported in the world’s news media.

A report on the Los Angeles Times’ blog “Babylon and Beyond” by Baghdad correspondent Tina Susman was the only small crack in the media blackout. The story was not carried in the Times itself.

The real significance of the captured weapons collected in Karbalawas 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 captured.

Karbalais one of Iraq’s eight largest cities, and it has long been the focus of major fighting between the Mahdi Army and its Shi’ite foes. Muqtada declared his ceasefire last August after a major battle there, but fighting resumed there and in Basrawhen the government launched a major operation in March. Thousands of Mahdi Army fighters have fought in Karbalaover the past year.

The official list of weapons captured in Karbalaincludes nine mortars, four anti-aircraft missiles, 45 rocket-propelled grenade (RPG) weapons, 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 Karbalaweapons cache also raises new questions about the official US narrative about the Shi’ite militia’s use of explosively formed penetrators (EFPs) as an Iranian phenomenon. Among the captured weapons mentioned by Major General Raied Shaker Jawdat, commander of the Karbala police, were what he called “150 anti-tank bombs”, as distinguished from ordinary roadside explosive devices.

An “anti-tank bomb” is a device that is capable of penetrating armor, which has been introduced to the US 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 home-made version.

The large cache of EFPs in Karbalawhich 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, Bergner omitted any reference to them in his otherwise accurate accounting of the Karbala weapons.

Gareth Porter is an historian and national security policy analyst. The paperback edition of his latest book, Perils of Dominance: Imbalance of Power and the Road to War in Vietnam, was published in 2006.


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