Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta was in Iraq yesterday. He said two things that are interesting. First, he connected the unrest in Iraq to al-Qaeda, claiming that there are 1,000 terrorists in the country. He told a gathering of soldiers “The reason you guys are here is because of 9/11. The US got attacked and 3,000 human beings got killed because of Al-Qaeda. “We’ve been fighting as a result of that.” The comment has either been seen as a gaffe or as the implausible but generally expected citation of al-Qaeda to tie in the continued Iraqi presence of American soldiers to the terrors of 9/11, a common ploy used by politicians when they have no other argument to make. Subject, verb, 9/11.
His second comment was that Iran is behind the weapons being used to kill American soldiers in Iraq. He said that the weapons had been provided to Shi’ite militias that are opposed to the US presence in the country. He was obviously referring to militias controlled by cleric Moqtada al-Sadr. He said that the United States would act unilaterally to defend its soldiers and would also be taking other unspecified steps to counter the Iranian involvement.
The comment on al-Qaeda’s presence might or might not be based on solid evidence, though one has to doubt whether the United States has much good intelligence on any insurgent groups in Iraq. One might also note that there was no al-Qaeda infrastructure in Iraq when the United States invaded in 2003. The subsequent occupation by as many as 160,000 US troops and the widespread reports of abuses like Abu Ghraib actually served as a magnet to bring al-Qaeda in. Does Panetta really regard al-Qaeda in Iraq as a threat to the United States? It is not clear, but it would appear the Administration would like to have us think so.
The issue of Iranian support for Shi’a militias is more serious in that it can be considered to be a casus belli, i.e. “they are killing our troops.” It also ties into a recent comment by Chairman of the Joint Chiefs Admiral Mullen and a reported statement by senior State Department official in Iraq Thomas Nides. Nides admitted that there was no actual proof that Iran was involved, only “classified intelligence.” In other words, “I can’t tell you but I think it’s true.”
I have been following this issue ever since it was first surfaced in 2005, when it was claimed that Iranian supplied improvised explosive devices (IEDs) were being used in Iraq, and, later, in Afghanistan. The evidence for the Iranian involvement has always been on the thin side, particularly as it was subsequently discovered that many of the weapons were being manufactured in a former bicycle factory in Iraq. They are definitely low tech and the need for Iranian involvement was always somewhat suspect.
Iran is perpetually the government’s favorite target for abuse and it will likely only get worse as the presidential election approaches. It is interesting how the White House sees Iran as a problem because the United States has hundreds of thousands of troops in the neighborhood. Take away the troops, who are dying while accomplishing absolutely nothing, and Bingo! Iran ceases to be a problem.