Iran in Iraq
General Casey, Commander, Multinational Force Iraq talked about the security situation at a briefing in the Pentagon (June 22, 2006) and chose to highlight the role of Iran. Here's the relevant portion of his briefing in its entirety for context. I've added inline references. The first three factors he identifies in Iraqi violence are al-Qaeda in Iraq, lawless armed groups and the Sunni insurgency. In Casey's apparent estimation, the Sunni insurgency is "reaching out" and looking to end their resistance "with honor". They are apparently in contact with the Coalition. However armed groups of sectarian and criminal thugs have become a major problem in themselves. But the rising problem is the role of Iran. (includes update on the peace deal that has just been offered by the Iraqi government to the Sunni insurgency)
I'd just say a word about the insurgency. People say the insurgency's growing because attacks are up. Now, what I'd tell you it's more complex. It's more complex than the insurgency is growing. The insurgency hasn't expanded. Fourteen of the 18 provinces still have about nine attacks a day or less. And if you look at where the sectarian violence is occurring, it's occurring within about a 30-mile -- 90 percent of it is occurring in about a 30- mile radius around Baghdad; some down in Basra, some in Diyala Province, the majority right there in the center of the country. So, much more complex environment, not necessarily a worse security environment. ...
The security environment is quite complex ... but it has increased in its complexity, really, since the December elections and in the aftermath of the Samarra bombing [this would be a reference to the Al Askari Golden Mosque attack on February 22, 2006] ... Al Qaeda is hurt in the aftermath of Zarqawi's death ... as a result of information found in the course of raids ... but they're not finished. And they won't be finished for some time.
The second big security challenge ... are these illegal armed groups ... And I say illegal armed groups rather than militias because militias take people in too many different directions. ... They are not the nine groups of militia that are mentioned in the CPA law that fought Saddam. These are criminals. ...
The third element that adds complexity ... is the fact that the ... Sunni insurgency, has been since the elections reaching out and looking for ways to reevaluate their options and to come out of the resistance against occupation with honor. And we are --we and the Iraqi government have several different strands of contacts going on, and there are opportunities in that regard that we just haven't had before. ... [Just at this writing The Times of London is reporting that the Iraqi Government has offered an amnesty to Sunni insurgents. "The 28-point package for national reconciliation will offer Iraqi resistance groups inclusion in the political process and an amnesty for their prisoners if they renounce violence and lay down their arms, The Times can reveal."]
Now for the Iranians.
And the fourth element that I'd suggest to you that adds complexity to the security environment is Iran. And we are quite confident that the Iranians, through their covert special operations forces, are providing weapons, IED technology and training to Shi'a extremist groups in Iraq, the training being conducted in Iran and in some cases probably in Lebanon through their surrogates. They are conducting -- using surrogates to conduct terrorist operations in Iraq, both against us and against the Iraqi people. It's decidedly unhelpful.
One reasonable way to interpret Casey's briefing is that he is asserting that the internal organized resistance (al-Qaeda in Iraq and the Sunni insurgency) is on the wane, but that externally instigated violence is on the rise. Some journalists at the briefing picked up on the highlighted role of Iran and began to focus their questions on it. In those exchanges, both Casey and Rumsfeld chose to emphasize Iranian logistical support for Shi'ite armed groups and the role of the Lebanese Hezbollah. They did not directly point the finger at Teheran. That would come later, but by implication.
Q General, in describing Iran's role in providing training and weapons for some of the insurgent or Shi'a inside Iraq, you used the word "surrogates." Does that mean that Iranians are actually directing these attacks? And if so, what is the United States military and, Mr. Secretary, the United States in general prepared to do about that?
GEN. CASEY: I have no evidence that there are Iranians in Iraq that are actually directing attacks. They are providing the materiel to Shi'a extremist groups that operate as their surrogates.
SEC. RUMSFELD: I thought you used the word "surrogate" in connection with Lebanon also -- when you were speaking earlier. I thought --
GEN. CASEY: There are some indications that Lebanese Hezbollah is also used in some of the training functions for the Iranians. So, another surrogate.
SEC. RUMSFELD: And Iran's the principal -- (word inaudible) -- then.
GEN. CASEY: But, I mean, you can't -- I can't believe that they're not giving them this equipment to them knowing that it's going to be used against us. Of course they do.
Another journalist picked up the Iranian thread after discussion had turned to "when are we bringing the boys home". The journalist wanted to know what the US was going to do about the Iranian intervention.
Q Mr. Secretary, given General Casey's concern about the Iranians, has the U.S. government communicated its concern to the Iranian government through some diplomatic channels?
SEC. RUMSFELD: You'd have to ask the State Department, but -- precisely what they've done in that regard. But I think it's safe to assume that given General Casey's concern, General Abizaid's concern, and my concern, that -- I hate to speak for them, but -- (pauses) -- I guess I shouldn't speak for them. I'll leave it for them. But clearly, I've said so publicly, General Casey said so publicly. They're not in the dark about the extent to which we're aware of what they're doing, which is notably unhelpful and causing the death of Americans.
Q Has it increased, Mr. Secretary?
SEC. RUMSFELD: General?
GEN. CASEY: Since January, we have seen an upsurge in their support, particularly to the Shi'a extremist groups.
January 2006 was probably the time (at least in my opinion) when it became obvious that the Sunni insurgency had failed. It was also when it became probable that an Iraqi government would inevitably be formed. Did that fact provide the impetus for Iran to increase it's role in the hopes of subverting this new government? It's worth recalling Casey's words at the start of his briefing. "The security environment is quite complex ... but it has increased in its complexity, really, since the December elections and in the aftermath of the Samarra bombing". Another journalist, perhaps recalling that General Casey had mentioned Iranian special forces in his initial remarks, kept pushing.
SEC. RUMSFELD: I think we better make this the last question. Behind you, Pam.
Q General, staying on the same topic, it's sometimes difficult to sense who is pulling the strings when it comes to Iran. Are we talking about the Iranian central government pulling strings on things going on in Iraq? Are we talking about Revolutionary Guard elements? Can you elaborate a bit more who you think in Iran is actually directing this stuff?
Q And who they're helping.
SEC. RUMSFELD: Do you think there are rogue elements milling around Iran?
GEN. CASEY: It is a very complicated country. What we see, though, is their Qods Force, their special -- covert special operations forces, are the ones that are directing this. Now, you would assume that they're not doing that independently, that there is some central direction from somebody in Tehran.
Q Is the aid primarily to Sadr's forces, or is it spread between Sadr, Badr, the people in Maysan?
GEN. CASEY: We think they're supporting all of the -- not all of the groups, but a wide variety of groups across southern Iraq.
SEC. RUMSFELD: We'll make this the last question. Right here.
Secretary Rumsfeld must have been happy to change the subject and the line of questioning drifted off the North Korea after this point, with Rumsfeld becoming increasingly playful and jovial.
Though nowhere is it categorically stated, it might be reasonable to summarize the situation as the Casey described it (or wished to portray it) in the following way:
- The internally organized insurgency (al-Qaeda in Iraq, the Sunni insurgency) is decline. Al-Qaeda in Iraq is hurt and perhaps dying; the Sunnis are looking to throw in the towel.
- Criminal gangs and ethnic militias are the rising threat. But Casey does not appear all that worried. "And if you look at where the sectarian violence is occurring, it's occurring within about a 30-mile -- 90 percent of it is occurring in about a 30- mile radius around Baghdad"
- Something happened "since the December elections and in the aftermath of the Samarra bombing" that made the security situation "more complex". And that something appears to be the increasing role of Iran using the Lebanese Hezbollah and Qods to direct and support "a wide variety of groups across southern Iraq".
The recently announced Iraqi government peace proposal to the Sunnis was in all probability already known to both Rumsfeld and Casey when they gave this briefing. If I were to guess, and I emphasize guess, it means that the US is now in the process of shifting its strategic focus from al-Qaeda and Sunni threats to Iran.