Monday, September 26, 2005

The British in Basra: Confronting Iran 

I have not written on the problems in Basra, which surfaced about a week ago when the Iraqis a couple of British agents into the klink and the Brits busted them out. As most of you know, this encounter has led to no end of bitterness in southern Iraq even though nobody had explained what the agents were doing and why they were arrested.

Today we learned that the troubles in Basra are the visible manifestation of the shadow war with Iran.
The two British special forces soldiers dramatically freed in an attack on an Iraqi police station this week were part of a team monitoring militant infiltration from Iran, the Sunday Times said.

Citing an unnamed source, the newspaper said special forces troops had been based near the southern city of Basra for weeks tracking the suppliers of armour-piercing roadside bombs believed to have come over the nearby border with Iran.

"Since the increase in attacks against UK forces two months ago, a 24-strong SAS team has been working out of Basra to provide a safety net to stop the bombers getting into the city from Iran," the source was cited as saying.

"The aim is to identify routes used by insurgents and either capture or kill them."

The two Special Air Service (SAS) troopers were operating undercover when they were approached by Iraqi police, and fired on the police before being arrested.

The press has under-covered the extent of Iranian infiltration of Iraq, but it is finally beginning to seep into the consciousness of the mainstream media. The Iranians have been supplying at least some elements of the insurgency in Iraq with advanced explosives to deploy in IEDs (do not miss Dan Darling's excellent post on that subject, linking Hezbollah and al Qaeda). We have also known for at least two years that the Iranians were much more deeply embedded with the Shiites in southern Iraq than had been previously believed. As Stratfor wrote($) in February 2004, fingering our reliance on Ahmed Chalabi's Iraqi National Congress, which had very close ties with Tehran, for much of the problem:
U.S. intelligence about Iraq was terrible. It was wrong about WMD; it underestimated the extent to which the Shia in the south had been organized by Iranian intelligence prior to the war; it was wrong about how the war would end -- predicting unrest, but not predicting a systematic guerrilla war. An enormous amount of this intelligence -- and certainly critical parts of it -- came to the United States by way of the INC or by channels the INC or its members were involved in cultivating. All of it was wrong.

The Iranian infiltration continues notwithstanding two years of British administration. As the Seattle Times reported last week:
While the United States battles Sunni extremists in northern Iraq, different but potentially more enduring Islamic radicals — many with close ties to Iran — have been allowed to take root in the south.

This was painfully evident this week, when the British army attacked the Iraqi police force they had trained for two years, only to find the police had handed two British soldiers over to the most hardline Shiite militia....

Agents of Iran — quite possibly the U.S. government's next adversary in the Middle East — have thoroughly infiltrated both the local security police in Basra and the elite paramilitary brigades sent in by the Interior Ministry in Baghdad, according to sources with access to U.S. intelligence. They are also heavily involved in the militias of some of the governing political parties.

What is happening in Basra, until recently little noticed in the international press, is described by one U.S. diplomat as "our dirty little secret."

One needs to be cautious about reading too much into stories such as these. Reports such as Stratfor's and the Seattle Times account quoted above always promote somebody's bureaucratic agenda -- often that of the State Department at the expense of DoD -- but it would nevertheless be foolish to think that Iran did not have significant influence among the Shia of the south. Iraq has long been Iran's greatest security threat, and the Iranians would have to have been foolish indeed not to infiltrate Iraq to the limits of its ability.

English-language Arab paper Al Sharq Al Awsat describes Iran's influence in Iraq even more starkly:
According to some documents, in addition to the statements of colonel Ismael, a leader of Al Quds Corps, who fled from Iran and Al Sharq Al Awsat has previously published an interview with him, Major Yasser, from the Guard intelligence, and a top official from the office of the Supreme Guide Khamenei, who requested anonymity, 3000-4000 men from the Guard and Al Quds Corps and the intelligence ministry have been sent to Iraq since the fall of Saddam Hussein...

The Iranian intelligence has purchased and rented more than 5000 homes, apartments, stores, warehouses, bookstores, mosques, restaurants, gas stations, etc, in Al Basra, Al Diwaneya, Al Kufa, Al Najaf, Karbala, Al Kazimiyah and Baghdad, for residence and employment places for its intelligence elements...

Ayatollah Khamenei has appointed representatives and agents in the holy Shiite cities. They pay monthly salaries to more than 7000 students and teachers to bring them and make them utter the pledge of allegiance for Khamenei as the leader of the nation...

There is also an Iranian presence in Kurdistan through thousands of Iranian Kurds, including leaders and elements of the opposing Kurdish democratic party, the opposing Kumala Communist Party, and the Kurdish students, scholars and workers, who are residing in the Kurdish semi-state in search for security from the oppression of the regime, or education in their mother tongue, or working to support their families....

And, of course, journalist Stephen Vincent was murdered in Basra last month, shortly after he wrote about the extent to which religious extremists -- presumably with spiritual and political ties to Iran -- had come to dominate the police and other institutions in Basra. (Wretchard offers, as usual, creative thinking about the implication of all of this for the "soft" occupation of the British, the utility of which is now in serious doubt.)

So, we can now piece together a story. The Iranians are pumping arms and agents into Iraq. British intelligence in the form of these two SAS agents and undoubtedly others were tracking it, and probably obstructing it. Iran, or Iran's allies in Iraq, ordered that these agents be shut down. Rather than murder them, which might trigger a massive British response, they were arrested by the Basra police, who then failed to turn them over to the British as is required by Iraqi law. Instead, they turned the agents over to Shiite militia, who undoubtedly were in communication with Iran. The British had to spring them by force, which then gave the local agitators reason to take to the streets.

Careful readers will remember that this is not the first confrontation between the Iran and Britain, even since the beginning of the Iraq war. There is undoubtedly far more to this twilight struggle than mere readers of the wire services can divine.


By Blogger Marlin, at Mon Sep 26, 11:21:00 AM:

I thought these two articles from The Times (of London) were interesting. Anthony Loyd can be a character, but at least his front line reporting from the early days of Afghanistan proved to be reliable.

Murder, violence and politics: how rogue police can live outside law

Taking a screwdriver to the truth  

By Blogger Papa Ray, at Mon Sep 26, 07:51:00 PM:

It has been clear (even to a novice like me) that the Brits have been glad handing and being PC and doing almost everything wrong in Basra and the whole of southern Iraq.

Almost since the day they got there.

It is totally out of control now. Even if the Brits were to quadruple their forces, unless they change their "management style" from what it has been to what is needed, we might as well take them all out and let Iran have that whold area.


Papa Ray
West Texas

By Anonymous Anonymous, at Mon Sep 26, 07:53:00 PM:

Dear Mr. TigerHawk:

The Shi'ite Iraqis will have to decide for themselves whether they want to run their own country or merely be a branch office of Tehran.

In August, we wrote a post that discussed the extensive visit to all the important office in Washington, D.C. of Ammar Hakim, the son of Abdul Aziz Hakim, the chairman of Shi'ite SCIRI, and thus one of the most important politicians in Iraq.

We wondered why Hakim came to Washington. If SCIRI and the other top Iraqi Shi'ites just want to simply turn the place over to Iran, why bother making relations with Washington? But if they don't want to be a branch office of Tehran, perhaps they see the Americans as their main ally and protector. They will need one, sandwiched between the Iranians, the Iraqi-Sunnis and the Saudis to the south.

After the 1991 debacle, the Shi'ites hardly trust the Americans. The issue for the Shi'ites is power and survival. If the Americans will make a long-term commitment to the Shi'ite region, it need not go over to Iran. If not, then the Shi'ite Iraqis will need an alliance with Iran to protect them from the Sunnis all around them.

It seems very likely that the SAS men were working against Al-Sadr's militia - Sadr's political agenda is almost completely the same as the Sunni's. SCIRI is on the other side.

The Iraqi Shi'ites need to have their little civil war at some point, to deal with al-Sadr. The U.S. can support SCIRI against Sadr, but only if SCIRI believes the U.S. will be there for them in the long-run. Otherwise SCIRI will cut a deal with Iran, which they have to live with forever. In that case, Iran probably will get eastern Iraq, at least for awhile. And that would leave Kurdistan, the most pro-U.S. area in the region, geographically and politically isolated.

Wretchard is right about the British - they don't have the men, the means, or the will to deal with al-Sadr. The SAS are great, but there were only 24 and (SCIRI) locals that might help them know they are likely to be gone very soon.

The U.S. can achieve its goals in Iraq only by working with local proxies; and those proxies will only work with the U.S. if they trust its persistence.


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