Babylon & Beyond

Observations from Iraq, Iran,
Israel, the Arab world and beyond

« Previous Post | Babylon & Beyond Home | Next Post »

IRAQ: A war for power against Iran?

April 9, 2008 |  6:46 am


U.S. officials and analysts are increasingly casting the Iraq conflict as a part and parcel of a broader regional battle against Iran — a "proxy war" between U.S.-backed forces and those supported by Tehran.

Just as we predicted, Iran's influence in Iraq was a major theme woven throughout the Senate testimony of Gen. David H. Petraeus and U.S. Ambassador Ryan Crocker, the two top American officials in Iraq.

Petraeus accused the Quds Force, an elite unite of Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard, and Lebanese Hezbollah of training, arming, financing and directing Shiite militias he called "special groups," who've been blamed for rocket attacks on the U.S.-protected Green Zone:

Unchecked, the special groups pose the greatest long-term threat to the viability of a democratic Iraq.

Crocker coined a nifty new term, saying that Iran and Syria were pursuing a strategy of "Lebanization" of Iraq by using Shiites to undermine the government and the U.S.-led security forces, just as they used Hezbollah in Lebanon:

They're using that same partnership in Iraq, in my view, although the weights are reversed, with Iran having the greater weight and Syria the lesser. But they are working in tandem together against us and against a stable Iraqi state.

Some analysts agreed. Even Michael Ware, CNN's animated Baghdad bureau chief, said live on television during the hearings that "America's competition for influence with Iran" was the "main issue of this war."

But does this world view raise more questions than it answers? A Los Angeles Times editorial pointed out that the U.S. invasion itself emboldened Iran and Al Qaeda in Iraq, and that Crocker and Petraeus were arguing that the Americans should stay in Iraq because forces unleashed by the invasion itself and describes the predicament Washington has gotten itself into.

They cited the very problems that Bush created by his decision to invade Iraq — an Al Qaeda presence and enhanced Iranian influence — as requiring an indefinite U.S. military effort. And they seemed more, not less, worried about Iranian attempts to destabilize Iraq...

Of course, the editorial continued, Washington and Tehran have been at odds for nearly three decades:

What's new is the relative military, political and economic weakness of the U.S. after five years in Iraq — and the wealth and assertiveness of Iran. Why should the Iranians negotiate with the Great Satan when they can sit back and let their proxies bleed him white?

Even if the U.S. is engaged in a proxy war with Iran over Iraq, veteran foreign correspondent and columnist David Ignatius of the Washington Post says simply keeping 140,000 troops in Mesopotamia might not be the solution.

Fighting a war against Iran is a bad idea. But fighting a proxy war against it in Iraq, where many of our key allies are manipulated by Iranian networks of influence, may be even worse. The best argument for keeping American troops in Iraq is that it increases our leverage against Iran; but paradoxically, that's also a good argument for reducing U.S. troops to a level that's politically and militarily sustainable. It could give America greater freedom to maneuver in the tests with Iran that are ahead.

There may be another problem with staying in Iraq to fight a proxy war: what if it's not totally accurate, or not the main cause of the instability in the country?

The U.S. isn't the first country to be caught in Mesopotamia's web. The British, too, found themselves in trouble in Iraq some 80 years ago; and they, too, blamed foreign meddling for their predicament.

Here's an excerpt from David Fromkin’s 1989 book "A Peace to End all Peace," about the British attempts to control a rebellious Iraq during a troubled British occupation:

The British were confused as to the origins of the revolt. [British Army Col.] Arnold Wilson submitted a list of thirteen contributing factors, stressing, above all, the involvement of [King] Feisal's supporters and Kemal [Ataturk's] Turkey, perhaps supported he claimed, by American Standard Oil interests. An intelligence officer attached to the India Office produced a chart outlining a conspiracy, implicating Feisal but, even more so, the Turks, who (he asserted) continued to take orders via Moscow and Switzerland from Berlin.

And check out this passage from the book, and try replacing the names at the end with today's cast of international U.S. rivals, like Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Bashar Assaad, Hezbollah, Muqtada Sadr, Al Qaeda:

…there was strikingly large body of opinion that held that what had occurred was by outsiders, and that the disorders throughout the east were somehow linked with one another. Certain names continued to recur in the course of British speculations as to the origins of the disorders: Enver Pasha, Mustapha Kamal, Feisal, Pan-Islam, the Germans, Standard Oil, the Jews, and the Bolsheviks.

Borzou Daragahi in Beirut

Photo: Iraqi men work to extinguish a blaze caused by a US rocket attack in Baghdad's Shiite enclave of Sadr City on April 8. Credit: Ahmad Al-Rubaye /AFP/Getty Images

P.S. The Los Angeles Times issues a free daily newsletter with the latest headlines from the Middle East, the war in Iraq and the confrontation between the West and Islam. You can subscribe by registering at the website here, logging in here and clicking on the World: Mideast newsletter box here.