Bush’s ‘proxy war’ claim over Iran exposed

By Gareth Porter

In his prepared statement to the US House of Representatives Foreign Affairs and Armed Services committees last week, General David Petraeus claimed that Iran is using the Quds Force to turn Shi’ite militias into a “Hezbollah-like force” to “fight a proxy war against the Iraqi state and coalition forces in Iraq”.

But Petraeus then shattered that carefully constructed argument by volunteering in answering a question that the Quds Force, an elite unit of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps, had in essence left Iraq. “The Quds Force itself, we believe, by and large those individuals have been pulled out of the country, as have the Lebanese Hezbollah trainers that were being used to augment that activity.”

Petraeus’ contradictory statements on the Quds Force are emblematic of a US administration propaganda line that has in essence fallen apart because it was so obviously out of line with reality. Nine months after the George W Bush administration declared that it was going to go after Iranian agents in Iraq who were threatening US troops, the US military still has not produced any evidence that Quds Force operatives in Iraq were engaged in assisting the militias fighting against US troops.

The US military command in Iraq has failed to capture a single Quds Force member it could link to the Shi’ite militias. And the evidence that has emerged over the past nine months about Shi’ite militias and their relationship to Iran suggests that Quds Force personnel in Iraq never had the mission of assisting Shi’ite militias, as claimed by the Bush administration.

It appears that an increasing number of military intelligence officers in Iraq have concluded that the Quds Force has been steering clear of working directly with Shi’ite militias attacking US troops, to avoid giving the Bush administration a pretext for aggression against Iranian territory.

In a military briefing presented in Baghdad on February 11, an unnamed US official stated flatly that weapons were being smuggled into the country by the Quds Force, but the briefers failed to present any specific evidence to back up the assertion.

Since that briefing, the US military command has captured the alleged deputy head and key logistical officer of the main Iraqi EFP (explosively formed penetrator, or armor-penetrating explosives) network and a Hezbollah operative who was a liaison with the network, as well as a number of what it called “suspected members” or “suspected leaders” of a “secret cell terrorist network known for facilitating the transport of and EFPs from Iran to Iraq”.

But the interrogations of these detainees have not led to the capture of a single Iranian official. Nor has the US military been able to identify a link between any Iraqi militia member and any Iranian official. On July 6, Major-General Rick Lynch, commander of US operations south of Baghdad, told reporters his troops had not captured “anybody that we can tie to Iran”.

Even more devastating to the “proxy war” line, Lynch’s spokeswoman, Alayne Conway, acknowledged on August 19 that they had not caught anyone supplying arms from Iran to the Iraqi Shi’ite militias.

There has long been some evidence, however, of a link between Shi’ite networks for procuring EFPs and other arms and the Lebanese Hezbollah. The leader of a Mahdi Army group that was carrying out attacks against British forces, Ahmad Jawwad al-Fartusi, who was arrested in September 2005, had lived in Lebanon for several years and was known to have personal contact with Hezbollah, according to a March 27 New York Times report.

Along with evidence of a growing relationship between Hezbollah and Muqtada al-Sadr’s army, which has now culminated in a Sadr office in Beirut, such past links between the two Shi’ite groups suggest that Hezbollah’s assistance to the Shi’ites need not have been ordered by Tehran.

US and British officials have acknowledged in the past that the EFP technology being used in Iraq might have entered Iraq from Hezbollah in Lebanon rather than from Iran.

The premise that the Quds Force agents in Iraq were involved in training Shi’ites to carry out operations against US troops was shattered when Lynch told reporters on August 19 that the Iranians were “facilitating the training of Shi’ite extremist” militiamen in Iraq. That clearly implied that the training was being done by Hezbollah.

The Washington Post and other news outlets quoted Lynch’s statement but nevertheless reported that Lynch had charged that Iranians were doing the training. A spokesperson for Lynch confirmed to Inter Press Service that Lynch had not made any allegation about Iranians training Shi’ites in Iraq.

Petraeus dealt the final blow to the notion of a Quds Force training role when he noted that the Hezbollah trainers had also been withdrawn from the country.

The briefing by US military spokesman Brigadier-General Kevin Bergner on July 2 was aimed primarily at advancing the theme that Hezbollah acts in Iraq as a “proxy” for Iran. But the real significance of the briefing – unreported in the US news media – was the first suggestion by a US official that the Quds Force personnel in Iraq might have avoided direct contacts with Shi’ite militias altogether.

Asked by a journalist why the Quds Force would “subcontract” the training of Shi’ite militias to Hezbollah, Bergner answered that Hezbollah could “do things that perhaps they didn’t want to have to do themselves in terms of interacting directly with special groups”.

Without mentioning any pullout of Quds Force personnel, Conway said on August 19 that Lynch estimated there were 50 Quds Force agents in his entire area of responsibility in southern Iraq. Four days later, Lynch clarified that estimate, telling reporters that 30 of those estimated 50 agents were “surrogates” – presumably referring to Hezbollah operatives engaged in training Shi’ites in southern Iraq.

Although it was buried in the August 19 story inaccurately reporting Lynch’s statement about training in Iraq, Megan Greenwell of the Washington Post reported the much more significant fact that “some military intelligence analysts have concluded there is no concrete evidence” linking the Quds Force in Iraq with the Shi’ite militias.

The charge that Iran is using the Quds Force to fight a proxy war is an effort to raise tensions with Iran by suggesting a potential reason for a US attack against that country. Similarly, the pressure for targeting the Quds Force in Iraq late last year came from senior officials in the Bush administration who wished to demonstrate US resolve to confront Iran, according to an in-depth account of the origins of the plan by the Washington Post’s Dafna Linzer published on February 26.

That policy was regarded with “skepticism” by the intelligence community, the State Department and the Defense Department when it was proposed, Linzer wrote, because of the fear it would contribute to an escalation of conflict with Iran.

“This has little to do with Iraq,” a senior intelligence officer told Linzer. “It’s all about pushing Iran’s buttons. It’s purely political.”