WASHINGTON - Recent statements by the U.S. military that Iran had pledged to stop supplying weapons to Shiite militias in Iraq and that this alleged flow of arms may have stopped in August were part of a behind-the-scenes struggle over whether the George W. Bush administration should make a gesture to Iran by releasing five Iranian prisoners held since January.
When U.S military experts found evidence that recently discovered weapons caches probably dated back to early 2007, it strengthened the hand of those in the administration arguing for the release and weakened the position of Vice President Dick Cheney and Gen. David Petraeus, who sought to scuttle any release by insisting that there was no evidence that Iran had changed its alleged policy of destabilising Iraq.
The issue of releasing the five Iranians kidnapped by U.S. troops in Erbil in January has divided the Bush administration since last spring. In early April, after Iran released 15 British sailors and marines, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice argued that the Iranians should now be released, but Cheney insisted that the United States should hold on to them.
The cases of the "Erbil five" were scheduled to be reviewed again in October, and the issue was so sensitive that it was understood that the decision would be made by the White House, as reported by the Washington Post Oct. 3.
During September and October, officials of the Shiite-dominated government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki were pressing for the release of the Erbil five, according to Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari. They were arguing that Iranian policy had helped bring about the six-month ceasefire declared by Moqtada al-Sadr Aug. 29 and thus a reduction in attacks by units of the Mahdi Army.
In the context of this behind the scenes debate, Petraeus told reporters on Sept. 30 that Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad had "pledged he would stop the flow of weapons, the training, the funding and the directing of these militia extremists..."
That claim of Iranian admission of guilt about masterminding Shiite militia attacks was contradicted by the accounts given by aides to al-Maliki that the Iranian leaders had pledged in their meetings with him in August to do more to police the Iran-Iraq border to prevent weapons from entering Iraq from Iran.
Having focused the issue on whether the Iranian weapons flow had slowed, Petraeus asserted that he had seen nothing that was "statistically significant, much less evidence" that there had been "a real reduction in the assistance provided". Petraeus's arguments appear to have represented the response of the Cheney faction to the Iraqi government assertion that Iran had helped reduce the level of Shiite militia attacks.
Lt. Gen. Odierno, who is responsible for day-to-day operations in Iraq, did not hide the fact that Petraeus opposed the release of the Erbil five. In a meeting with Washington Post editors and reporters Oct. 3, he declared, "Militarily, we should hold on to them".
According to a report in the Los Angeles Times Oct. 31, "some State Department officials" were continuing to urge the release of the Erbil five. In an Oct. 25 meeting with journalists, Ambassador Ryan Crocker noted the ceasefire ordered by Moqtada al- Sadr, but said it was "unclear to us what role, if any, Iran might have played in it..."
Last Jul. 24, after a meeting with his Iranian counterpart, Crocker had told reporters the United States held Iran responsible for Shiite militia attacks in Iraq, citing an increase in indirect fire attacks launched from Sadr's stronghold Sadr City in particular. That implied that a reduction in attacks would be regarded as evidence of a change in Iranian policy.
Furthermore, Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari had been arguing to both Crocker and the U.S. military that the Iranians had indeed played a key role in the ceasefire decision.
Zebari revealed that Iraqi government argument when he told Reuters Nov. 6 that Iran had been "instrumental in reining in the militias and the Mahdi army by using its influence" and called Iran's relationship with the militias "part of the security improvement". The same argument was repeated by al-Maliki spokesman Ali al-Dabbagh at a lunch with reporters Nov. 17.
Although Sadr had his own reasons for declaring a ceasefire with the U.S. military and his Shiite rivals, the Iranian leaders no doubt urged him to reach a new accord with al-Maliki and the Shiite parties supporting his government. Iran has tried to maintain good relations with all major Shiite factions.
With the fate of the Erbil five still undecided, Odierno was asked by a journalist at a Nov. 1 press briefing whether the reduction in attacks by Shiites was related to the alleged reduction in Iranian support. Although he acknowledged Sadr's ceasefire announcement, Odierno explained the slowing of attacks as primarily the result of successful U.S. military operations against the Mahdi army.
Odierno mentioned a "huge EFP [explosively formed penetrator] cache" just discovered the previous week and an "initial assessment" that it may have been there since early 2007. But he said it was "unclear...whether they have slowed down bringing in weapons and supporting the insurgency or not. I'll still wait and see."
But within a few days, the White House had decided to override the Petraeus-Odierno view of Iranian policy in conjunction with deciding to release two of the Erbil five.
On Nov. 6, the U.S. military spokesman, Rear Adm. Gregory Smith said it was the military's judgment that two recent large EFP caches predated what he said was an Iranian pledge to Maliki in August. Smith then announced that another round of trilateral working group talks with representatives of Iraq, Iran and the U.S. was expected and that nine Iranians in U.S. custody, including two of the Erbil five, would soon be freed.
Maj. Gen. James Simmons, the deputy commander in charge of countering roadside bombs, explained in a Nov. 15 briefing that new forensics capabilities now made it possible to "determine that those weapons systems have been there for months".
Although he reported the verdict about the weapons caches, military spokesman Smith also went out of his way to restate the arguments that Cheney's office had pushed since late 2006: that all the EFP caches discovered in Iraq "originated in Iran", that the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Quds Force were responsible for all the weapons found and that "Iranian leadership is aware" of its activities.
When questioned by a reporter about whether EFPs were being manufactured in Iraq, however, Smith was evasive. He said, "I won't indicate necessarily the location" of EFP manufacture, adding that "the origination of the EFPs, we believe are [sic] in Iran."
Odierno had admitted to NBC's Jane Arraf last February that, "some of the [EFP] technologies" were "probably being constructed here". Nevertheless statements by the U.S. command have always avoided acknowledging that EFPs -- as well as the copper lids, which are the most technically demanding part of the technology -- are being manufactured inside Iraq.
Despite the decision in early November to cite forensic evidence that went against his position on the prisoner release, Petraeus repeated in a Wall Street Journal interview last week the claim that Iran had made "unequivocal pledges to stop the funding, training, arming and directing of militia extremists in Iraq". He added that "we have some doubts".
By effectively putting the onus on Iran to prove that they are not sponsoring the Shiite militias, the Petraeus tactic positions the hardliners in the administration to continue to oppose any further move to reduce tensions with Iran.
*Gareth Porter is an investigative historian and journalist specialising in U.S. national security policy. His latest book, "Perils of Dominance: Imbalance of Power and the Road to War in Vietnam", was published in June 2005.
© 2007 Inter Press Service