Sorry about the break, I've been busy working on a paper and a test on the subject of who started World War 1 (and anyone says Gavrilo Princip I'll bite their head off ;) that has taken me away from keeping track of the Iranians and the fighting in Fallujah. Just in case nobody else notices it, there's a pretty good piece from Knight-Ridder on the issue of Omar Hadid, Zarqawi's Darth Vader in Fallujah and a former member of Saddam Hussein's personal guard it would seem. And it seems that our pal Mike wasn't being as candid as one might think during his appearance on various media outlets concerning Iraqi ties to al-Qaeda.
But back to Iran ...
Muqtada al-Sadr and the Mahdi Army
As I and others have noted on several separate occasions, Sadr's campaign against US forces in Iraq was plotted, financed, and enabled by elements within the current Iranian government, in particular the Revolutionary Guards. At the time such charges were made, they were widely dismissed as neocon propaganda designed to cover up the coming wave of homegrown anti-Americanism and hatred for the American occupiers that was going to sweep over the Iraqi Shi'ites and force the US to abandon the country. Quite fortunately, wiser heads seem to have prevailed in the interim period between the initial clashes with Sadr in April and the final showdown with him in An Najaf and his Iranian backing ceased being a subject of debate and has now reached the point where the only people in the foreign policy arena seriously objecting to the idea are academics.
Still, vindication always feels good.
Perhaps Iran's most significant involvement in Iraq has been its support for Moqtada al-Sadr, the radical, anti-U.S. cleric. His Mahdi Army militia engaged in a series of vicious battles with coalition forces in the holy southern Shiite cities of Najaf and Karbala, and in the teeming Baghdad slum known as Sadr City, between April and October this year. Like most of its operations in Iraq, the intelligence reports indicate that the Iranian regime has tried to mask its support of Sadr.
My suspicion is that al-Haeri's break with him was part of that masking process. Sadr first appeared on the Iraqi political scene in April 2003 when he and members of the Jamaat-e-Sadr Thani (JeST, a kind of proto-Mahdi Army) murdered Abdul Majid al-Khoei and attempted to seize control of the Shi'ite holy sites across in Karbala and An Najaf. They even threatened to murder the nephew of SCIRI leader Ayatollah Mohammed Bakr al-Hakim unless his uncle pledged allegiance to Sadr - by threatening the far larger and by far more overtly pro-Iranian SCIRI, JeST helped to establish itself as an independent Iraqi force and even sought to position its opposition to Sistani on the basis of him having been born in Iran.
He visited Tehran in June 2003 for a ceremony marking the death of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the spiritual leader of the 1979 revolution, but it is not known whether he received any commitment from Iran at that time.
My guess would be yes. Sadr first started threatening violence against coalition troops (as opposed to rival Shi'ite leaders) stationed in Iraq upon his return from Iran. There have long been credible allegations of Iranian involvement in the al-Khoei killing, so if we attribute that to Sadr (as the Iraqi judiciary has) then it becomes clear, at least to me, that the mullahs have been manipulating him in order to get rid of as many as their enemies inside Iraq as possible in addition as testing the strength of coalition forces. Khamenei, Rafsanjani, et al. don't plan on having Sadr rule Iran for a wide variety of reasons - that's what al-Haeri and others are being groomed for - but are instead using him as their sword until he outlives his usefulness. There was even a report out over the summer that Sadr had been stabbed during a dispute with members of his "office" in An Najaf - members who I am almost entirely certain spoke Farsi as their primary language.
U.S. intelligence reports say that Iran used Hezbollah to train and provide funds to Sadr's Mahdi Army and may also have used front companies to funnel money to him.
That tracks with the reports of Mugniyeh being in Iraq working with Sadr to oppose coalition forces there as well as claims by Iranian defectors that Iran had provided upwards of $80,000,000 for Sadr's little uprising. I think Cox and Forkum had a pretty good visual illustration at the time as far as how this all works, though they seem to have forgotten Hezbollah ...
For a time, the reports suggest, Sadr appeared to be getting funds from a senior Shiite religious leader living in Iran, the Grand Ayatollah Kazem al-Haeri, who advocates an Islamic state in Iraq. But by mid-October 2003, according to a special operations task force, Haeri withdrew his "financial support" from Sadr. The ayatollah later publicly cut his ties with Sadr.
That actually isn't as damning as it might sound, since Sadr didn't go off the reservation in terms of attacking coalition forces until April 2004 (he was already having his thugs beat up those Iraqis deemed insufficiently Islamic for months ahead of time) and one of the problems with Iran being a theocracy is that the Shi'ite leadership there does provide funding to all kinds of legitimate Shi'ite religious organizations and clerics, of whom Sadr must unfortunately be counted among. At the same time, however, it must be noted that according to the excellent work of Constantine Menges and others, al-Haeri is the Iranians' intended man to serve as the Iraqi version of Khomeini when the time is ripe. I can't recall the exact circumstances for al-Haeri's breach with Sadr, so if anyone can recall it off-hand please let me know.
here was no such break with Hezbollah. The first sign that the terrorist group planned to support Sadr is reflected in a July 29, 2003, U.S. intelligence report. Citing Israeli military intelligence, the report says Hezbollah "military activists" were attempting to establish contacts with Sadr and his Mahdi Army. The next month they did. By late August, according to a report prepared by a U.S. military analyst, Hezbollah had established "a team of 30 to 40 operatives" in Najaf "in support of Moqtada Sadr's Shia paramiltary group." The report, based on a source "with direct access to the reported information," said that Hezbollah was recruiting and training members of Sadr's militia. A later report, citing "multiple sources," said that Hezbollah was "buying rocket-propelled grenades . . . antitank missiles" and other weapons for Sadr's militia.
Hezbollah, of course, is Iran's official terrorist proxy and is the only terrorist group outside of al-Qaeda that can claim the most experience in terms of fighting Americans, which may explain why Iran was so keen to enlist them for reasons outside of plausible deniability. The man reputed to be responsible for directing Hezbollah's interactions with Sadr and the Mahdi Army was none other than Imad Mugniyeh, who has personally supervised and planned the killing of more Americans than any other terrorist save Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and Abu Musab Zarqawi. If Mugniyeh was in Iraq during the initial fighting with Sadr, however, he is almost unquestionably back in Iran or Lebanon by now.
Intelligence analysts also tied Sadr to Hassan Nasrallah, the secretary general of Hezbollah. "Reporting also confirms the relationship between . . . Sadr and Hassan Nasrallah," an Army report said. The report cited unconfirmed information indicating that a top adviser to Nasrallah, who is based in Lebanon, had delivered funds to Sadr in Najaf.
That would, in all likelihood, be Mugniyeh, or at the very least one of his cronies. Nasrallah basically runs the political arm of Hezbollah while Mugniyeh supervises the far more important operations aspect. With Khalid Sheikh Mohammed and Ramzi Yousef out of commission, my guess would be that Mugniyeh can very easily be placed among the top five terrorists still at large, and in that I'm counting bin Laden, al-Zawahiri, Saif al-Adel, and Abu Faraj al-Libi.
Other reporting indicated that the Mahdi Army may have received support from former Saddam supporters and other anticoalition groups. Intelligence analysts were aware, as early as the fall of 2003, that Sadr could become a serious problem. At that time, there had been no confirmed attacks on coalition forces, only Sadr's tough rhetoric, in which he denounced the United States and called the Iraqi Governing Council illegal. But, as a British defense intelligence report said, "stockpiling of heavier weapons, along with public anti-CF [Coalition Force] rhetoric, could indicate a willingness to take more direct action against CF."
Those "other anti-coalition groups" would include none other than Abu Musab Zarqawi's very own al-Tawhid wal Jihad, which endorsed Sadr's struggle in April despite Zarqawi and his flunky Mustafa Setmariam Nasar's own personal hatred towards Shi'ites. I should also reinterate that while Sadr had not attacked US forces prior to April that neither he nor the Mahdi Army showed any such restraint towards the Iraqi citizenry. I personally think that Sadr would have preferred to wait a few more months before making his move inside Iraq, though his thugs destroying a village was probably the event that forced things to a head more than anything else, though most media outlets (US News included) reported that it was Bremer closing down his newspaper that started the conflict.
Direct action was precisely what Sadr took, after Bremer ordered his Baghdad newspaper shut down, in March this year, accusing it of "inciting violence" against U.S.-led forces.
Quite accurately, one might add ...
Days later, after American soldiers arrested a Sadr aide, fierce fighting erupted between U.S. troops and Sadr's forces.
The Iraqi indictment of Sadr for the murder of al-Khoei may well have played a some role in that ...
In August, Sadr's Mahdi Army surrendered the Imam Ali Shrine in Najaf, and last month he reached a cease-fire with the United States and Iraq's interim government. Sadr's fighters began turning in their weapons, as part of an agreement to disband, and Sadr signaled his intention to get involved in the political process. He remains influential with many Shiites, and American officials know that, if the Iraqi venture is to succeed, they must do everything they can to keep the majority Shiites happy. "Beware if we lose the goodwill of the Shi'ites. The honeymoon is over," an Army captain wrote in October 2003, months before the battles with Sadr's forces began. "Arresting Sadr, the son of a martyr, will only fuel Shiite extremists' animosity, and strengthen their recruiting efforts."
Thankfully, the US appears to have dealt with Sadr without the latter occurring. That Sunni Arab clerics are foaming at the mouth that their Shi'ite (and Kurdish, one might add) counterparts have remained silent in light of the fighting in Fallujah is in of itself indicative that the Iraqi Shi'ites, if not some of their leaders, know enough about Iraq to know who their friends are.
Managing the Sadr situation, some government and intelligence officials say, is a microcosm of the far more difficult challenges America faces in responding to Iran's activities in Iraq.
I'd call it a small-scale version of what could happen, for both sides. As I've noted before, Sadr is simply the opening act in what the mullahs view as a far more elaborate drama, though I very much doubt that Sadr himself views it in such a context. When SCIRI and al-Haeri come into play, then we'll know that the mullahs are cranking up for an end-run.
Iran clearly has the potential to stir up far more trouble than it has, particularly in the largely Shiite southern half of Iraq. But so far, as it continues its elaborate dance with the West over its ambitious nuclear program, the Islamic regime has yet to turn the heat up full blast in Iraq, evidently secure in the knowledge that it can do so when and if it sees the need to. "I would not put it past them to carry out spectacular attacks," says David Kay, the former chief U.S. weapons inspector in Iraq, "to demonstrate the cost of a hostile policy. That is the policy issue--can we learn to live with Iranian nuclear capacity?"
It's true that they can escalate things in southern Iraq, but that strategy also has more than a few risks to it - namely that the US will retaliate in force. If they launch a mass casualty attack against US forces in Iraq, they run the risk of us targeting their own border forces or even their nuclear facilities depending on Bush's mood. The mullahs seem to recognize this, which is one of the reasons that their strategy is one of caution, at least until they have the nuclear deterrent that they seem to believe will give them the ultimate protection against the US. And once that's completed, then we will see large-scale attempts to force the US out of Iraq.
This section will be far shorter than any others (though you'll find out its significance tomorrow), as it deals entirely of quotes and statements made in a now-defunct Los Angeles Times story by Sebastian Rotello with respect to Iran's harboring of the surviving al-Qaeda leadership. You can read the Rantburg copy here, if you like.
Despite its periodic crackdowns on the terrorist network, Iran has served as a refuge for Al Qaeda operatives suspected of plotting attacks in Europe and the Middle East and of playing a central role in the Iraqi insurgency, European investigators say.
Investigations in France, Italy, Spain and other countries since the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks point to an increasing presence in Iran of al-Qaida figures, including the suspected masterminds of this year's train bombings in Madrid and last year's car bombings of expatriate compounds in Saudi Arabia. But Iran's complex politics and secretive policies have made it difficult to determine the nature of any relationship between Iranian officials and the terror network, investigators say.
What concerns Western law-enforcement officials, however, is the post-Sept. 11 menace posed by al-Qaida, including its involvement in Iraq and deadly attacks in Europe, North Africa and the Middle East. As Osama bin Laden's movement has reconfigured since 2001, Iran has become an intermittent refuge for kingpins who have gained stature and autonomy while bin Laden has faded from the limelight, European officials say.
"The Iranians play a double game," said a top French law-enforcement official who, like others interviewed, asked to remain anonymous. "Everything they can do to trouble the Americans, without going too far, they do it. They have arrested important al-Qaida people, but they have permitted other important al-Qaida people to operate. It is a classic Iranian style of ambiguity, deception, manipulation."
"When the Iranian government says it is not dealing with al-Qaida, it is telling the truth," said Mustafa Alani of the Royal United Services Institutes, a think tank affiliated with the British Defense Ministry.
"It's not the government — it's the Revolutionary Guard. We are talking about an ideological army, not just an intelligence service, and the politicians really have no power over them. There is some sort of tactical alliance with al-Qaida in which the Revolutionary Guard turns a blind eye toward the activity in Iran."
Al-Qaida figures who allegedly have operated in Iran, according to court documents and investigators in Europe, include Abu Musab Zarqawi, the Jordanian seen as a leader of the Iraq insurgency and a broader international network; Saif Adel, an Egyptian regarded as al-Qaida's military chief; and Mustafa Setmariam Nasar, a veteran Spanish-Syrian holy warrior seen by Spanish police as a possible mastermind of the Madrid attacks.
Although bin Laden and his right-hand man, Ayman Zawahari, are believed to be hiding in the Afghan-Pakistani borderlands, other core leaders found shelter in Iran after fleeing from the U.S. military operation in Afghanistan in late 2001, according to officials.
Some European experts accept the Iranian argument that the presence of militants is confined mostly to vast border areas that are hard to control. And Iran has arrested prominent figures such as bin Laden's son Saad, according to the top French anti-terror official.
Yet Iran has offered little information about the status of suspects including Saad bin Laden and al-Qaida military chief Adel, a former Egyptian commando. About a year ago, U.S. officials said Iranian forces had Adel in custody, but Iran did not confirm his detention. Reports among counterterror officials suggest Iranian agents allow some leaders "controlled freedom of movement," the French official said.
As al-Qaida geared up three years ago for its offensive on the West, Iran was a busy route to training camps in Afghanistan, investigators say. In a conversation wiretapped by Italian police on March 10, 2001, a member of a terror cell in Milan, Italy, said holy warriors passing through Iran had nothing to fear, according to the transcript in court documents.
"Isn't there a danger in Iran?" asked a Tunisian named Taarek Chaarabi, who later was convicted on terror-related charges.
"No, because there's an organization that takes care of helping the mujahedeen brothers cross the border. There's total collaboration with the Iranians," responded a Libyan named Lased ben Hani.
"Pakistan was the most comfortable route, but in these past years there's too many secret services," ben Hani continued. He said an al-Qaida operative "in Iran receives the brothers and selects them and decides whether to send them to Afghanistan. It's better to go to the Iranian Embassy in London because it's very smooth and then everything's well-organized all the way to the training camps."
The Iranian entry route became an escape route in late 2001. When the U.S. military smashed bin Laden's Afghan sanctuary, dozens of his militants fled into Iran, some with wives and children. Iranian authorities soon arrested and deported many of them, but other suspected terrorists received different treatment, investigators say. Fugitives went to Iran after eluding dragnets in Spain and other European countries, according to investigators and court documents. Others used Iran as a departure point to attempt attacks in Europe, according to investigators and court documents.
Zarqawi, the Iraq-insurgency figure, is believed to have found refuge in Iran, according to French and Spanish officials. In Spanish communications intercepts last year, a fugitive Moroccan suspect, Amer Azizi, said he was "in Iran with Abu Musab Zarqawi," according to Spanish investigators. Police believe Azizi made his way back from Iran to Madrid to play a lead role in the train bombings.
"The Iranians have been saying for two years that they have dismantled the networks," said Claude Moniquet, director of the European Strategic Intelligence and Security Center, a Brussels, Belgium, think tank. "But there are people in the European services who think Zarqawi was in Iran until recently. It's a contradictory picture."
None of those individuals cited in this story could ever be classified as anything even remotely resembling "neocons" and most them strongly opposed the war in Iraq or the belief that there were ties between Iraq and al-Qaeda. Yet no one who is "in the know" among the British, French, Spanish, or Italian governments is foolish enough to believe that there is any doubt over the issue of Iranian ties to al-Qaeda, especially post-9/11. The al-Qaeda management board is now based in Iran, to use Judge Baltasar Garzon's terminology.
He said that in February 2004.
So I ask you, what exactly has changed with respect to the Iranian relationship with al-Qaeda since then?