US sees Iranian hand in Iraq attacks

When a top US commander in Iraq reported last week that attacks by Shiite militias with links to Iran had risen to 73% of all July attacks that had killed or wounded US forces in Baghdad, he claimed it was because of an effort by Iran to oust the US from Iraq, referring to “intelligence reports” of a “surge” in Iranian assistance. But the obvious reason for the rise in Shiite-related US casualties — ignored in US media coverage of Lt. General Raymond Odierno’s charge — is that the Mahdi Army of Moqtada al-Sadr was defending itself against a rising tempo of attacks by US forces at the same time attacks by Al Qaeda forces had fallen.

In his press briefing on Aug. 5, Odierno, the second-ranking US commander in Iraq, blamed the rise in the proportion of US casualties attributable to Shiite militias to Iran “surging their support to these groups based on the September report” — a reference to the much-anticipated report by General David Petraeus on the US surge strategy. Odierno claimed intelligence reports supported his contention of an Iranian effort to influence public perceptions of the surge. “They’re sending more money in, they’re training more individuals and they’re sending more weapons in.”

Repeating the charge in an interview with the New York Times published on Aug. 8, he declared of Iran, “I think they want to influence the decision potentially coming up in September.” What Odierno framed in terms of an Iranian policy, however, can be explained much more simply by the fact that the US military mounted more operations on Moqtada al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army during the spring and summer. The US command has not provided any statistics on the targets of its operations in recent months, but reports on those operations reveal a pattern of rising US attacks on Mahdi Army since March 2007.

Between April 26 and June 30, the US command in Baghdad announced dozens of military operations in Baghdad — the vast majority in Sadr City — solely for the purpose of capturing or killing Shiites belonging to what were called “secret cells” — a term used to describe Mahdi Army units alleged to be supported by Iran. In July the Mahdi Army resisted these raids in many cases. On July 9, for example, US troops cordoned off an area in Sadr City and began searching for members of what the US command called a “criminal militia” accused of planting roadside bombs. According to the official military press release, the US troops were “engaged by rocket-propelled grenades and small arms fire.”

In short, the rise in deaths of US troops in Baghdad in July reflected the increased pace of US operations against the Mahdi Army and the Mahdi Army’s military response. Odierno conceded as much in the same press conference: “Because of the effect we’ve had on Al Qaeda in Iraq and the success against them and the Sunni insurgency,” he said, “we are focusing very much more on the special groups of the Jaish al-Mahdi [Mahdi Army] here in Baghdad.”

On April 8, Sadr issued a statement urging the Iraqi army and police to stop cooperating with the US and told his guerrilla fighters to concentrate on pushing US forces out of the country. Thus it requires no Iranian hand to explain the escalation of the conflict between the Mahdi Army and the US military that accounts for the changing pattern of US casualties in Baghdad. — IPS