Iran's Covert War in Iraq


Mar 16, 2007

This commentary originally appeared in Washington Times on March 16, 2007.

Americans and people around the world have expressed understandable skepticism about the claim by U.S. military officials in Baghdad that Shi'ite militias in Iraq are receive financing, equipment, arms, munitions and training from elite units of the Iranian special forces.

After all, we remember how key elements of U.S. intelligence reports that Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction (WMD) proved to be inaccurate, and we remember how those inaccurate reports provided the rationale for the American invasion of Iraq. So why should we believe intelligence reports about Iranian involvement in the fighting in Iraq today — especially if such a belief could potentially lead to fighting between the United States and Iran in the future?

There are four critical differences between the case against Iran today and the WMD estimates involving Iraq in 2003. All these differences combine to build an overwhelming case for the accuracy of the reports about Iranian involvement in Iraq.

(1) The source of the information used by the U.S. intelligence community today about Iranian involvement in Iraq isn't provided by Iraqis who have an axe to grind against their abusive leader, as was the case with WMD reports. Rather, the intelligence comes from American privates, sergeants, lieutenants and captains. They have no reason to distort the information provided.

(2) Rather than rely on the type of circumstantial evidence about WMD that existed in 2003, today the U.S. military possesses a wealth of physical evidence demonstrating Iran's role in the fighting in Iraq. A very small portion of this evidence was recently shown to reporters by officers assigned to the 1st Cavalry Division in Baghdad. This evidence included captured rocket-propelled grenades, mortar rounds and rockets. All these weapons had Iranian markings, serial numbers and dates of production — some as late as 2006.

(3) One of the weapons displayed to reporters in Baghdad — the so-called explosively formed projectile — is made from components only known to be produced by Iranian manufacturers in Tehran, working under contract for the Iranian government. This particular form of improvised explosive device was first used in 2004 in Lebanon by the Shi'ite terrorist organization Hezbollah, which also receives support from Iran.

Gen. William Caldwell, a spokesman for the U.S. military in Baghdad, says the explosively formed projectiles were shown to the media because, while few in number, they have a particularly lethal affect against U.S. and coalition forces. Since January 2006, use of this weapon by Iran-backed Shi'ite militias has increased 150 percent and it has emerged as the single largest killer on the battlefield. These are military-grade weapons that require advanced machine work not available in Iraq.

(4) The U.S. military has captured senior members of the elite Iranian special forces unit known as the Qods Force operating inside Iraq. This force reports directly to Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Hoseini Khamenei.

For example, during a January operation in Irbil, Iraq, American troops captured Iranian Gen. Mohsen Chizari — the No. 3 in the Qods force — and four other senior members of the organization. According to the American military, the captured Qods officers possessed falsified identification cards, disguises and sensitive Iranian documents, providing further evidence of Iranian involvement within Iraq.

It is also widely known that the United States has a broad range of advanced capabilities to gather intelligence within a war zone. And we know the military has captured a number of Iranian operatives and Shi'ite militia members who have provided detailed information relating to Iranian involvement, which U.S. forces are not disclosing for security reasons.

The one thing the U.S. military cannot prove beyond a reasonable doubt is that the Iranian government's highest levels have authorized this covert war in Iraq. However, a review of all the evidence publicly released leaves no doubt that Iranian special forces are actively arming and training Shi'ite militia groups within Iraq. The only thing missing is the equivalent of a signed "Presidential Finding" from either Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad or the Ayatollah Khamenei authorizing Qods Force operations inside Iraq. This type of proof will never be available.

While we may never have the smoking gun, it is hard to believe such a large-scale covert action could take place by Iranian forces in Iraq without both the direct knowledge and at least tacit approval of the Iranian government's highest officials.

Rick Brennan served in the Office of the Defense Secretary during the Clinton administration is now a senior political scientist at the Rand Corp.

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