Monday, February 12, 2007

What triggered the Iran-weapons show

The focus of critical comments in the US on the "Iranian weapons" show in Baghdad (attended by journalists without cameras or recording devices, briefed by US officials without names) has naturally been on the theme of dubious hyping for a pre-planned war, this time with Iran. The second-most-enthusiastic purveyor of this was the NYT, one of whose "contributors" to this story, Michael Gordon, some people recalled, shared a by-line with Judith Miller in one of the main fraudulent WMD stories on Iraq back in 2003.

But even more enthusiastic than the NYT was another newspaper, the big-circulation Iraqi (Sunni) paper Azzaman (in its international edition, from which the quotes below are taken). As far as Azzaman is concerned, the point of all of this was not the issue of war with Iran. Azzaman swallowed the whole presentation and then some, but its focus was not on what this shows about American intentions with respect to war with Iran. Rather, its focus was on the question of how the Baghdad security plan is going to be executed, and implicitly on the question of Shiite organizations being targeted along with Sunni ones.

The Azzaman account goes like this:
The American army yesterday in Baghdad furnished journalists for the first time with proof of Iranian intervention in Iraq, by supporting militias of the parties that participate in the government with advanced weapons. An American military official said a group of rogue elements from the Mahdi Army, and a group run by a former official of the Badr organization who split from it and fled to Iran, received from the Quds Brigades of the Revolutionary Guards rounds of these weapons that they used in armed attacks against American forces. [And the journalist cites the numbers 170 and 620 as the numbers of US soldiers these anonymous briefers said were killed and wounded with these weapons since 2004. Then the journalist goes on]:

Prime Minister Maliki, for his part, said the Baghdad security plan is going to go through an escalation phase where units of the army and police will close off the ten districts [of Baghdad] all at the same time. And he said in a written statement: "The aim is to cleanse these areas of terrorists and weapons," adding, "this will not begin with one district, but rather with all districts simultaneously, and those participating in the execution of this will be distributed over all the colors of the Iraqi spectrum." And a senior American official said, "Iran is involved with supplying extremist Iraqi groups with explosives and bombs and other materials..." [and the journalist resumes the story of the what the anonymous briefers said, and how the briefing was run, how everyone got a CD with pictures on it, and so on].
Then after reciting the Americans' weapons-running allegations about the Iranians "arrested" in Arbil last month, and the two other Iranians "arrested" at the residential compound of SCIRI head Abdulaziz al-Hakim in December, the journalist continues:
[One of the briefers said] the groups that have used the Iranian-made explosives include rogue members from the Mahdi Army that had split from its leader Moqtada al-Sadr, and reports have said these are leaders of death squads who have fled to Iran ahead of startup of the [current] security campaign. And [the briefer] said another group, led by a former official of the Badr Organization, which is led by Abdulaziz al-Hakim, and who split with him and fled to Iran, has received similar weapons. The briefer said: "We have undertaken to pass on this information to the highest levels of the Iraqi government."
The story is a very neat and tidy one. Moqtada and Hakim, both of whom participate in the government, are not themselves accused of anything. But Shiites formerly in their organizations, Mahdi Army and Badr Organization, funnel Iranian weapons to groups fighting the Americans. This information will be transmitted to "the highest levels of the Iraqi government". This was General Petraeus' first full day on the job in Baghdad, and Azzaman links this story to the announcement by Maliki of an even-handed approach to the new Baghdad security plan. From which one might conclude that the "Iranian weapons" charges were mainly linked to the question of the new security strategy under Petraeus.

You would be right about that, says Al-Hayat:
People in the Iraqi political milieu link these accusations [about Iranian weapons and so on] with disagreements between the American forces and the Prime Minister Maliki. Maliki had been asking that the new Baghdad security plan be applied beginning with Sunni areas and exclude the special protection forces...while the Americans were bent on starting with Sadr City, which is Shiite and the Mahdi Army stronghold. It appears the two sides reached an agreement yesterday, with Maliki's accouncement that the plan will start with all areas simultaneously.
And lest you missed the point, the Al-Hayat reporter concludes his account with the exact same sentence that the Azzaman reporter used to close his account:
[One of the briefers] said: "We have conveyed this information [the Iranian allegations] to the highest levels of the Iraqi government".
In a nutshell: The Iran-weapons show was part of American pressure to make sure the Iraqi government agrees to include Shiite targets as well as Sunni targets in the new security plan.

Interestingly, it appears Iraqi newspapers actually circulating in Iraq didn't mention the Iran-weapons show at all. At least there doesn't appear to be anything at all about it in Al-Mada, New Sabah, or even in the government-controlled Al-Sabah, possibly because for public consumption this would have been regarded as further inflaming the public mood.

(The fire-breathing Juan Cole, by contrast, took the occasion to ratchet up his attacks on those he now calls the "Baathists and Salafi Shiite-killers," noting these are certainly not the groups to which Iran would be giving weapons. Good point.)