Focus on Al-Qaeda Now Diminishing
By Karen DeYoung
Washington Post Staff Writer
Last week's violence in Basra and Baghdad has convinced the Bush administration that actions by Iran, and not al-Qaeda, are the primary threat inside Iraq, and has sparked a broad reassessment of policy in the region, according to senior U.S. officials.
Evidence of an increase in Iranian weapons, training and direction for the Shiite militias that battled U.S. and Iraqi security forces in those two cities has fixed new U.S. attention on what Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates yesterday called Tehran's "malign" influence, the officials said.
The intensified focus on Iran coincides with diminished emphasis on al-Qaeda in Iraq as the leading justification for an ongoing U.S. military presence in Iraq.
In congressional hearings this week, Army Gen. David H. Petraeus said the U.S. military has driven al-Qaeda from Baghdad, Anbar province and central Iraq, and he depicted the group as now largely concentrated in a reduced territory around the northern city of Mosul.
During their Washington visit, Petraeus, the top U.S. military commander in Iraq, and Ambassador Ryan C. Crocker barely mentioned al-Qaeda in Iraq but spoke extensively of Iran.
With "al-Qaeda in retreat and disarray" in Iraq, said one official who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak on the record, "we see other obstacles that were under the waterline more clearly. . . . The Iranian-armed militias are now the biggest threat to internal order."
Partly in response to advice from Petraeus and Crocker, the administration has initiated an interagency assessment of what is known about Iranian activities and intentions, how to combat them and how to capitalize on them. The review stems from an internal conclusion, following last week's fighting, that the administration lacked a comprehensive understanding and a sophisticated approach.
President Bush reiterated yesterday that if Iran continues to help militias in Iraq, "then we'll deal with them," saying in an interview with ABC News that "we're learning more about their habits and learning more about their routes" for infiltrating or sending equipment.
But he also reaffirmed that he has no desire to go to war with Tehran. Saying that his job is to "solve these issues diplomatically," Bush suggested heightened interest in reaching a solution with other countries. "You can't solve these problems unilaterally. You're going to need a multilateral forum."
Iran has long been seen as a spoiler in Iraq, with such strong ties to all of the major Shiite political and militia groups, including that of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, that other Arab countries have begun to regard Iraq as almost a client state of Iran.
The recent fighting in Basra, which began when Maliki launched a military offensive against the Mahdi Army militia of Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, revealed a threat and an opportunity, officials said.
U.S. military officials said that much of the plentiful, high quality weaponry the militia used in Basra and in rocket attacks against the Green Zone in Baghdad, where the U.S. Embassy and much of the Iraqi government are located, was recently manufactured in Iran. At the same time, the militia's improved targeting and tactics indicated stepped-up Iranian training.
Interrogations of four leaders of Iran's Revolutionary Guard Corps Quds Force captured in Iraq in December 2006 and January 2007 have also bolstered U.S. conclusions that portions of Sadr's militia are directed from Tehran.
Despite earlier indications that Iranian backing for Iraqi armed groups and the flow of Iranian arms have waned, Adm. Michael Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said yesterday that "this action in Basra was very convincing that indeed they haven't." Basra "gave us much more insight into their involvement in many activities."
Gates, who appeared with Mullen at a Pentagon news conference, said of Iran: "We are going to be as aggressive as we possibly can be inside Iraq in trying to counter their efforts." Iraqi security operations in Basra, he said, have been "a real eye-opener" for Maliki's government.
Petraeus told Congress that Maliki had launched the offensive hastily and with inadequate preparation, leading to a standoff and the need to call in U.S. air support. During the first days of the Basra operation, U.S. officials were sharply critical of Maliki's timing and performance; some worried that the attack against Sadr forces was less an offensive against what he called "criminals" in Basra than it was an attempt to win political advantage over a rival Shiite group before upcoming elections.
Iran's brokering of a tentative cease-fire among Shiite political groups and the militia in Tehran added to U.S. consternation.
"The importance of Iranian influence in facilitating the discussion between different political factions was of significant importance," Petraeus told Pentagon reporters yesterday. Administration officials worried that Iran appeared in control of events in Iraq, while the United States seemed weak and uninformed.
But more recently, U.S. officials have seen a possible advantage in the situation. Maliki's willingness to go after fellow Shiites attracted support from other political groups in Iraq, including Sunnis and Kurds, that have long been suspicious of his sectarian leanings. It also gave Washington a talking point to use with Sunni Arab governments in the region that have shunned him. "It's an opportunity to make him look better inside Iraq and to make a better argument to the Arabs," an official said.
The administration has long tried in vain to build Arab diplomatic and economic support for the Iraqi government. But the Arabs, led by Saudi Arabia, consider Shiite Iran a competitor for regional dominance and have rejected Maliki as "a stooge for Tehran," as one U.S. official called him.
"The Saudis appear to feel that the current Iraqi government is pretty much in thrall to Iran," said a State Department official involved in Middle East policy. The administration's hope, "in the wake of Maliki's decisions on Basra," the official said, "is that the Saudis will take a step back and take another look."
In a news conference Thursday, Crocker dismissed Arab concerns about a recent visit to Baghdad by Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. "It's not the fact of the Ahmadinejad visit, but the absence of visits by other neighbors that it's important to focus on. There hasn't been a single visit, even by an Arab cabinet minister, to Baghdad. As Iraq grapples with the challenges Iran is posing, it could certainly do with some Arab support."
After consultations with Crocker and Petraeus this week, Bush cut short their Washington visit and dispatched them to Riyadh. During a luncheon at The Washington Post, Crocker said that at a White House meeting Thursday morning, they "reviewed where we are in Iraq."
The message to the Saudis, he said, "is going to be . . . it is time, more than time, for the Arab states to step forward and engage constructively with Iraq. Get their embassies open, get ambassadors on the ground, consider visits, implement debt relief, treat Iraq like the country it is, which is a central part of the Arab world."
Staff writers Peter Baker and Ann Scott Tyson contributed to this report.