Saturday, September 24, 2005

Iraq War: Strange days in Basra

"I think we are winning.  Okay?  I think we're definitely winning.  I think we've been winning for some time." - Gen. Richard Myers, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, on the Iraq War 04/26/05

"I just wonder if they will ever tell us the truth." - Harold Casey, Louisville, KY, October 2004.

When I pulled out of Basra they all wished me luck
Just like they always did before
With a bulletproof screen on the hood of my truck
And a Bradley on my back door

                 - Steve Earle, "Home to Houston"

The Times of London is running a set of stories about British special forces who it says are fighting a clandestine war again "Iranian agents".  The strange case of the two Brits arrested in Basra and then busted out by the British army last week is supposedly related to this.

SAS in secret war against Iranian agents by Michael Smith and Ali Rifat 09/25/05.

Two SAS soldiers rescued last week after being arrested by Iraqi police and handed over to a militia were engaged in a "secret war" against insurgents bringing sophisticated bombs into the country from Iran.

The men had left their base near the southern Iraqi city of Basra to carry out reconnaissance and supply a second patrol with "more tools and fire power", said a source with knowledge of their activities.

They had been in Basra for seven weeks on an operation prompted by intelligence that a new type of roadside bomb which has been used against British troops was among weapons being smuggled over the Iranian border.

The bombs, designed to pierce the armour beneath coalition vehicles, are similar to ones supplied by Iran to Hezbollah, the Islamic militant group.

The special forces officers are saying that the Mahdi Army of Muqtada al-Sadr took the two into custody.  In any case, the local authorities still aren't very happy with their British friends.  A local police officer claims they shot him in the leg with no good reason:

A judge said yesterday that he had issued warrants for the arrest of the SAS men over the shooting and the alleged killing of a second man shot in the car chase. Judge Ragheb Mohamad Hassan al-Muthafar told The Sunday Times in an exclusive interview that the soldiers were "suspects who attempted to commit a wilful act of murder".

He added: "Whatever their mission they have no right to fire intentionally on anyone, let alone a security man whose job is to protect this country."

The paper also reports on the claims of the former Iraqi defence minister Hazim al-Shalan, who seems to have spirited away quite a few dollars on his watch, that these Iranian agents are running around: How Tehran pulls the strings of insurrection: Iraq's former defence chief tells Robert Winnett he warned of the Iranian threat 09/25/05.

Talking exclusively to The Sunday Times, he said that the Iranians influence the Iraqi police and army and even the interim government.

More than 460 Iranian intelligence agents have been captured in the country, but many thousands more are openly operating, he said.

According to Shalan, the Iranian intelligence service began infiltrating Iraq two months before the allied invasion.

Now I've read enough James Bond and John Le Carre novels to be fascinated by stories that suggest wheels within wheels of intrigue.  And I have not doubt that such things are going on.

But I also remember how badly the Bush administration, and through them the Congress and large parts of the American public, were scammed by doctored intelligence cooked up with self-serving information provided by Iraqi expatriates like the embezzler Ahmad Chalabi, who turned out to be an Iranian spy himself and is now a senior official in the pro-Iranian Iraqi government.

And this story seems more than a little wobbly:

He believes that the Iranians have twoaims: to ensure Iraq becomes a religious state over which they have influence or control, and to keep the Americans under pressure.

"The insurgency is a diversionary tactic by Iran to keep the American army busy," he said. "The Iranian mission is to tie up the Americans for as long as possible so they can develop nuclear weapons.

"However, if the Americans pull out of Iraq my assessment is that the Iranians would be able to take control very quickly.["]

Reality-check: The US, with some assistance from our British allies, have installed a Shi'a, pro-Iranian, Islamic fundamentalist regime in Baghdad.  The leading Shi'a party SCIRI was largely trained and organized originally by the Iranians, and its leaders supported Iran in its long and bloody war with Iraq.  Ayatollah Sistani, the most influential leader of any kind in Iraq, is Iranian himself.  He's not even an Iraqi citizen.

And the Times is presenting reports on the fact that Iran has lots of friends in Iraq as though its a big surprise?  And just why would Shi'a Iran be supporting the Sunni insurrection against the pro-Iranian, Shi'a-dominated Iraqi government?

Something about the whole framework of these stories is very fishy.  Yes, wheels within wheels, Oriental intrigue, yadda, yadda, I'm sure lots of it is happening.  But the Blair and Bush government have a strong track record of running devious intrigues to deceive their own legislatures and publics, too.  Use of brain is recommended in looking at stories like these.

This article provides more details on the mission of the two Brits who were captured: Playing with fire: British troops are famed for winning hearts and minds [sic] but last week Basra erupted. Ali Rifat, Michael Smith and Richard Woods on an SAS mission that went horribly wrong 09/25/05.  They note matter-of-factly that it was "an incident that has revealed the fragility of the British mission in southern Iraq." Indeed.

This latter article is an especially lively and informative piece of war reporting.

After a week in which Iraqis fire-bombed a Warrior armoured vehicle and British soldiers fled in flames, the mood in Basra remains volatile on all sides.

Many Iraqis are incensed that two SAS troopers, disguised in civilian clothes, shot an Iraqi policeman and, allegedly, a civilian when challenged at a checkpoint. Another nine people died in the ensuing riot, according to the Iraqi judge handling the case, and 14 were injured.

Among British forces morale is suffering in the face of increasing hostility in Iraq and diminishing public support for the war at home. With the referendum on the proposed Iraqi constitution due next month and elections for the first proper government in December, the British find themselves caught between insurgents bent on mayhem and local militias desperate to grab power. Telling friend from foe is far from easy.

Referring to the story of the policeman who was shot, they write:

If this is a true account, why might the SAS have reacted by opening fire without warning? According to one former officer with experience of Iraq, troopers believe the Iraqi police are never to be trusted because their ranks are plagued by militia members and insurgents.

"It is commonly accepted that if you are captured by the Iraqi police there is every chance you will be handed over to the militia - which is akin to a death sentence," he said. "So the rule of thumb is to avoid being captured at all costs."

Even the Iraqi chief of police has admitted he cannot trust all of his men.

It's not surprising that the allegedly passionate supporters of this gruesome mess of a war like our keyboard commandoes couldn't turn out more than 150 demonstrators at their pro-Iraq-War event on Saturday at the Navy Memorial in Washington.

Near the end of the third article, the writers provide an observation which emphasizes the puzzle: why would Iran be funding insurgents against the pro-Iranian government in Iraq?

Gareth Stansfield, an expert in Middle East politics at the Royal Institute of International Affairs and Exeter University, believes the Iranians are already the real winners from the Iraq war.

"Iraq has been delivered to Iran on a plate by the coalition," he said. "It sits there as a powerful neighbour, with very complex and strong links in the south ... and politically with the Kurds in the north.

"I would goso far  as to say that the pre-eminent foreignforce in Iraq is not the US, it is Iran. It has succeeded in its geopolitical aim - Iraq will never threaten them again - and it has tied up the US in a swamp of insurgencies." (my emphasis)

It's also worth remembering that the US-British position right now is basically providing military support for the pro-Iranian, Shi'a-dominated regime in Baghdad in a sectarian war against anti-Iranian Sunnis.  As Gareth Porter recently wrote (The Third Option in Iraq: A Responsible Exit Strategy Middle East Policy Fall 2005):

Up to now, the political discourse on Iraq has reflected the administration's view of the policy problem as one of defeating a threat to a democratic regime from an antidemocratic insurgency composed of Saddam loyalists and foreign Islamic terrorists. The administration's definition of the problem has enormous appeal to Americans, who viewed the January 2005 parliamentary elections as an inspirational story of people choosing democracy in the face of terrorist threats. But it has obscured the underlying problem in Iraq, which is a sectarian conflict between Sunnis and Shiites that is already becoming a civil war. Even worse, the administration's policy of backing the Shiite government against the Sunnis rather than promoting reconciliation between the two groups has actually encouraged the emergence of that civil war. (my emphasis)

"Wars are easy to get into, but hard as hell to get out of." - George McGovern and Jim McGovern 06/06/05

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