How Much Is Iran to Blame for Iraq?

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The extraordinary briefing in the Green Zone pointed a finger but it wavered. The sophisticated bomb technology behind some of the deadliest improvised explosive devices (IEDs) in Iraq came from neighboring Iran, said U.S. military officials in Baghdad on Sunday. Those IEDs used a molten ball of copper to punch through the armor of American vechicles to kill or main the passengers. Such explosively-formed penetrators (EFPs) have killed 170 U.S. troops and wounded 620 more since the spring of 2004. Their use has doubled since 2006, accelerating at the end of that year. The U.S. is usually guarded in revealing any information that might help its enemies fine-tune their strategies. But the reason for the break from standard procedure, the officials said, was the origin of the EFPs: the weapons, they claimed, are produced in Iran and smuggled into Iraq by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps' (IRGC) elite al-Quds Force.

And yet, the officials at the briefing (who declined to be named but who included an intelligence analyst and an explosives expert) were at pains to distance themselves from what one called the "tremendous hype" in Washington — an apparent reference to recent U.S. claims of Iranian involvement in Iraq, which some fear might be a prelude to aggressive action against Tehran. The briefing occurred in the context of increased American pressure on the Iranian government. And the Bush Administration has claimed that the strife in Iraq since the summer of 2003 can be laid largely at the feet of foreign actors — from Arab jihadists to the Syrian regime to the Iranians. But the briefers said their concern was the safety of U.S. troops. They acknowledged that the sectarian conflict in Iraq would continue even without Iranian involvement. But they said they hoped the publicity they were bringing to the origin of the weaponry would prompt the Iraqi government to take the problem more seriously. The message to Iraqi leaders, the lead briefer said, was: "Please engage with and talk to your neighbor, and tell them to stop doing what they're doing."

The intelligence analyst at the briefing said that the EFPs came from the IRGC and that the IRGC reports directly to Iran's Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. But the Iranian government is notoriously factionalized, and drawing conclusions about Iranian intentions based on Iranian operations in Iraq isn't so simple. It's been clear for years that the Iranians are exerting influence in Iraq; the surprise would be if they weren't. Even after Sunday's briefing the nature and extent of Iranian military aid to Iraqi militants remains difficult to assess. "It's plausible deniability," the intelligence analyst explained.

In fact, the U.S. officials seemed to be putting more pressure on the Iraqi government of Shi'a Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to alter its relatively warm opinion of Iran. Still, inspite of U.S. fears that the predominantly Shi'a government of Iraq is more than partial to Shi'a Iran, the briefing shed little light on which groups in highly factionalized Iraq — within the government or associated with the country's dominant Shi'a political parties — were cooperating with Iran and using the imported EFPs. The intelligence analyst at the briefing said there was no involvement by the Iraqi government at any level. But as proof of Iranian meddling in Iraq the briefing cited a raid in which weapons, maps, inventory sheets and two Iranian agents were seized at the compound of Abdul Aziz al-Hakim. Hakim heads the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, the largest party in Iraq's governing coalition.

The majority of EFP attacks, the officials said, came from "rogue" elements of Moqtada Sadr's Mahdi Army. The officials would not go further than that to associate the leader of the powerful Shi'a militia to Iran. This is the same line the U.S. walks when attributing militia violence and death squad murders to the Mahdi Army. Sadr is the highest-profile — and likely the most effective single opponent — of the American presence in Iraq. But he is also a power broker in Iraq's government and a key supporter of the Iraqi prime minister. It is therefore politically tricky to accuse him flat out of insurgent activity, murder and fomenting sectarian violence. The analyst said that Sadr's Mahdi Army is not a homogeneous organization, and that some elements of the militia do not follow Sadr.

The briefing sought to put the Iranian government, not the Iraqi government, front and center. But, even with slides showing an IRGC IED seized in last month's raid in Irbil, and with an explosives expert on hand to explain why EFPs and other munitions could only have come from Iran, demonstrating a definitive link was easier said than done. The Iranians, according to the intelligence analyst, use Iraqi smugglers to transport weapons across the Iran-Iraq border. However, it is still Iraqi militant groups, not the Iranians, who, in the end, use the weapons against U.S. forces.