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Iraq War 2003: Background, Lessons and Follow-On

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January 10, 2005

Iraqi Leadership, In Battle For Survival and Under Direct Coercion, Begins Process of Cooperation With Iranian and Syrian Leaderships

Analysis. By Jason Fuchs, GIS UN Correspondent. GIS sources in Iraq on January 8, 2005, confirmed that the Iranian Government had been involved in organizing the December 19, 2004, bombing in Najaf which killed more than 50 people, as well as its ongoing involvement in the Iraqi intifada, and yet there appeared to be a growing reluctance in the Iraqi interim Government — and in Washington, DC — to openly confront Iran’s clerical leadership and the Syrian Government. Indeed, there now appeared to be a pattern of cooperation developing between the Iraqi interim Government of Prime Minister Iyad Allawi and the governments of Iran and Syria, because of the apparent belief that the US could not provide protection to the Baghdad Administration.

In essence, the development of a revived modus vivendi between Iraq and the Iranian clerics and Syria’s Ba’athist leadership threatens to jeopardize US strategic goals for the Middle East, by helping those two leaderships survive and continue with anti-US/anti-Western terrorist, WMD, and political activities.

On December 29, 2004, the Najaf police chief, Gen. Ghaleb al-Jazairi, had accused the Iranian Ministry of Intelligence and Security (MOIS) of involvement in the attack, following the capture and interrogation of three suspects linked to the bombing. Four days earlier, Gen. Al-Jazairi had released information on another arrested suspect, stating that the man had “lived in Syria where he worked for Syrian intelligence”, apparently at an Iraqi refugee camp. According to Gen. Al-Jazairi, the suspect had “confessed that Syrian intelligence services had played a rôle in the blast”.

GIS sources noted that, while this intelligence was essentially accurate, the Najaf police chief had, it was believed, received his information through US intelligence and that the subsequent decision to publicly release the “discovery” had been a choice made by US decisionmakers, not the Najaf authorities or the interim Administration of Iraqi Prime Minister Iyad Allawi’s Administration. It remained unclear, though, as to who had made the decision to release this information through the Najaf police chief. Whomever the source, both Tehran and Damascus appeared to have read the message in the context of increasingly terse “threats” from a variety of Iraqi political figures, notably the Iraqi defense minister Hazem al-Shaalan, who called Iran Iraq’s “number one enemy”.

Yet Tehran appeared appropriately unconcerned by the escalating rhetoric. As far as the Iraqi Defense Minister was concerned, GIS sources noted that within the interim Government and on the Iraqi political scene “everyone was distancing themselves from Hazem al-Shaalan”.  As one GIS source in Iraq noted: “The problem isn’t his message, but his lack of subtlety.” With the Defense Minister being slowly ostracized, the Iranian leadership would pay little heed to his warnings and more attention to what had been the apparent reaction on the political scene; that is, a tremendous reluctance to openly confront Tehran regardless of the overwhelming evidence of its involvement in the Iraqi intifada and, by inference, recognition that Washington remained incapable of protecting its Iraqi allies from Tehran’s reach.

The Iraqi Defense Minister’s cause had been further hindered by the overt and unmistakable domestic political overtones of his message, in which he inaccurately conflated the Iranian threat with the prospect of the Iraqi National Alliance, the so-called “unified Shi’ite list”, dominating the polls in the January 30, 2005, elections. To this end, Shaalan accused Dr Hussein Shahristani — a leading, independent candidate on the Iraqi National Alliance (al-Ittilaf al-Watani al-Iraqi) list — of acting as an agent for Iran and implied that the entire list of candidates would act as an Iranian surrogate if allowed to assume the majority in the Iraqi National Assembly. GIS sources noted that the National Alliance list remained the most viable if not the only viable party in the upcoming elections. This political viability stemmed not from Tehran’s interference in Iraqi affairs, but from the broad-based support the party received from large swathes of Iraqi Shi’ites—not necessarily, nor mostly pro-Tehran—as well as Failis (Kurdish Shi’ites), Turkmen, and Yazdis, all of whom fielded candidates on the National Alliance list.

With virtually no Iraq-based constituency, PM Allawi continued to prepare for all possible contingencies with the recognition that his personal and political wellbeing depended on his ability to convince both Washington and Tehran that he would serve their respective interests to the fullest. Problematically for the US, Tehran seemed far more cognizant of this reality than did the US Bush Administration. As GIS/Defense & Foreign Affairs Daily reported in a September 2, 2004, dispatch by Senior Editor Yossef Bodansky that by mid-August 2004 PM Allawi had reached out to Iranian-sponsored Shi’a cleric Moqtada al-Sadr and Tehran:

This was achieved through a secret agreement reached between Allawi and his three confidants and Sadr and his close aides, including representatives of Iranian intelligence and the HizbAllah, according to which the Moqtada al-Sadr “Mahdi Army” would not be disbanded, the Shi’ite mujahedin would be permitted to keep their weapons, and Sadr and his commanders would enjoy blanket immunity.

Essentially, the Shi’ite forces were left intact and permitted to regroup and prepare to fight another day, which was fine by Allawi as long as they would fight against the US forces and not his Administration. Moreover, Sadr’s people remained in the Najaf Grand Mosque, albeit as “agents of Sistani’s court”. To ensure compliance, in late August 2004, Allawi reached out to Tehran and offered a rapprochement. In a series of meetings in Tehran, Allawi’s official and clandestine emissaries assured the Iranian leaders that the guerilla warfare against the US would continue, albeit without endangering Allawi and his inner circle. Moreover, Allawi’s Baghdad said that they would recognize the Iranian legitimate vital interests in Iraq (which, needless to say, cannot co-exist with a US presence in Iraq). The Iranians stressed that Tehran was adamant on realizing its strategic objectives, and that Allawi’s remaining in power would depend on his “performance”.

In light of this, the Allawi Administration’s response to Gen. Al-Jazairi’s revelations proved particularly illustrative. By January 2, 2005, Gen. Al-Jazairi had been ordered by the interim Government to leave Najaf and return to Baghdad “before he would be ultimately fired” according to Iraqi Interior Minister Fallah al-Naqib. GIS sources noted that al-Naqib had been included in the Allawi-Tehran understanding and, further, al-Naqib’s declaration came during a meeting with the Syrian Interior Minister, Ghazi Khanaan in Tunisia. Significantly, the initial report, quoting the Iraqi Interior Minister deriding Gen. Al-Jazairi’s comments as “unfounded”, came from the official Syrian news agency SANA. The fact that official Syrian media had been appraised of decisionmaking regarding an Iraqi police matter before any prepared statement was released from Baghdad indicated the degree to which the decision made had been aimed at audiences in Damascus and, by extension, Tehran. The anticipated reaction of those in Najaf and even of Coalition authorities had proven entirely secondary. By January 6, 2005, Iraqi Deputy Interior Minister Sabah Kadhim had issued an official apology to Syria and Iran regarding the Najaf police chief’s “quite unfounded and baseless” accusations.

While there had been little other indication of the Allawi-Tehran agreement in the ensuing months, GIS sources reported in early January 2005 that the pact still held and, critically, was nearing on-the-ground implementation.1 The January 30, 2005, elections would, GIS sources detailed, act as the practical “trigger” for the maturation of this pact. If the elections unfolded as expected, January 31, 2005 would see the Iraqi National Alliance list with a majority in the newly elected National Assembly and find PM Allawi at his weakest juncture. Allawi had clearly anticipated this. For his part, Tehran’s backing would allow him to survive in the post-election Iraq that the Iranian leadership was determined to shape. The US Bush Administration, on the other hand, either ignorant of or unwilling to accept the reality of Allawi’s positioning and heavily influenced in this regard by the State Department and outgoing US Secretary of State Colin Powell, would, in all likelihood, continue to see the secular Allawi as a worthy prime ministerial counterbalance to a perceptibly more religious, pro-Tehran National Assembly. Already, Washington’s allies in the region, cognizant of the US Bush Administration’s tenuous short-term strategic footing, had capitalized on the concern within the State Department and parts of the CIA over the looming success of the unified Shi’ite list.

Jordan’s King Abdullah, in particular, had provided excellent intelligence to Washington on the Iranian presence in Iraq, but — not unlike Iraqi Defense Minister Shaalan — tied these reports to warnings about the Shi’ite-takeover in Baghdad that the January 30, 2004, elections promised. Concerns included the presence of Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraqi (SCIRI) leader, Abd al-Aziz al-Hakim, at the “head” of the National Alliance list, which had prompted many to suggest that al-Hakim would be the likely choice for prime minister if the Ayatollah Sistani-backed list succeeded. Yet, as American Enterprise Institute (AEI) Resident Fellow and former political adviser to the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) in Iraq, Michael Rubin, told GIS in early January 2005: “Who is first on the list does not matter. Once the entire assembly is elected, they will choose a prime minister.” And while the National Alliance would, in all likelihood, take a majority, it would still be forced to deal with a variety of Iraqi political factions, narrowing al-Hakim’s chances to assume the prime ministership. Rubin added: “The candidate will more likely be someone not deemed a party leader, but rather a compromise candidate.” A more likely choice could be the current interim Finance Minister, Adel Mehdi.

For the US White House, distinguishing between real threats from Iran and imagined threats from Iraqi Shi’ites had become a troublesome component in discerning a clear Iraq policy. Ultimately, the belief that Iyad Allawi would provide a better counterweight against the prospect of a pro-Tehran Baghdad than a National Alliance dominated assembly failed to acknowledge the shifting alliances in Baghdad and overestimated the sway that Tehran held within the Iraqi Shi’ite community.

The Iraqi elections came at a particularly sensitive time for Tehran, which found itself staving off international pressure to end its “suspected” nuclear weapons programs at the same time as a burgeoning democracy in Iraq threatened its own stability and perpetuity. Complicating matters was a developing leadership struggle at the uppermost levels of the Iranian hierarchy.

GIS Iranian sources detailed that the rift between Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Hoseini-Khamene‘i and Ali Akbar Hashemi-Rafsanjani, the chairman of the Expediency Council, was increasing “day by day”. Rafsanjani, the most powerful man in Tehran after the Supreme Leader, remained undecided through early January 2005 as to whether or not he would run for president in the June 17, 2005 Iranian elections. Already Rafsanjani had been invited to run by a number of Iranian political parties including the Executives of Construction Party (reformist), Islamic Civilization Party, Islamic Labor Party (conservative), Jam'iyat-e Vafaadaaraan-e Enghelaab-e Eslaami (conservative), Moderation and Development Party (conservative), and Workers' House (reformist).

Ideologically, both Khameine‘i and Rafsanjani remained “on the same page”; that is, they both continued to view the Islamist revolution as the heart of the Iranian Islamic Republic’s very existence and, in turn, accepted the use of “unconventional warfare” through Islamist “vanguard forces” as the primary means for the export and defense of the revolution. While Rafsanjani had often been described as a “pragmatist” in contrast to the more “fundamentalist” Supreme Leader, both remained committed to the same overall goals. As one GIS Iranian source explained: “The disagreement between Khameine‘i and Hashemi-Rafsanjani is not about ideology. It is about power.”

While the conflict had simmered beneath the surface for more than a decade, with the tense situation in neighboring Iraq and concern rising about domestic unrest, GIS sources revealed that, by January 2005, there existed the possibility that Rafsanjani would attempt to remove Khameine‘i with the support of elements of the MOIS, a key component of Rafsanjani’s power base. While many Iran observers focused on Rafsanjani’s presidential aspirations, GIS sources noted that real power, regardless of the outcome of the June 2005 elections, would still rest with Khameine‘i. Whether Rafsanjani would view a presidential victory as a stepping stone to unseating Khameine‘i or an unnecessary distraction from this campaign would, it was believed, play a central rôle in whether or not Rafsanjani decided to run for president.

Regardless, Rafsanjani’s eyes remained focused beyond the June 2005 elections and on the seat of the Iranian Supreme Leader. Aware of the challenge from Rafsanjani, Khameine‘i appeared to be in the process of adopting some of Rafsanjani’s “pragmatic” tactics in order to hold off international/US pressure long enough to allow the covert Iranian nuclear weapons program to produce a sufficient deterrent capability to preserve Khameine‘i’s rule. To this end, the Iranian leadership was committed to undertaking an ostensible rapprochement with Washington even as it collaborated with the international Islamist-jihadist leadership to launch a new offensive against and within the West.

GIS sources pointed to a speech scheduled for January 14, 2005, in New York by the Iranian Ambassador to the United Nations, Hojjat ol-Eslam Dr M. Javad Zarif, as one component of this “rapprochement” strategy. One GIS Iranian source detailed that the speech had been approved by the highest levels of the Iranian leadership and would discuss opportunities to bring Washington and Tehran closer together. This speech could mark the beginning of a diplomatic offensive designed to force the US Bush Administration’s hand at a time when it recognized its unstable position in Iraq and the failure, thus far, of US pressure and coercion to obfuscate Iranian nuclear weapons development.

At the same time, the Islamist faithful found itself in the throes of intense anticipation, awaiting the long promised jihadist offensive. The need for a new round of “spectacular” strikes from the Islamist standpoint had never been greater, both with regard to the upcoming elections in Iraq and the PA, and in light of the promises made by Islamist leaders including Osama bin Laden and Ayman al-Zawahiri about impending “painful” strikes against the “Crusader-Zionist alliance”. Further, the strategic decision to withhold the offensive until after the November 2004 US election may yet prove a wise one for the Islamist international, but risked engendering an image of weakness and irresolution unless subsequent strikes could soon be launched.

Tehran fully recognized this need and, as GIS sources reported in late October 2004, remained deeply involved along with Damascus in discussions about the new offensive. Bin Laden himself had even acknowledged the Iranian rôle, particularly in Iraq, re-justifying a point of contention in the Sunni Islamist movement: the involvement of Shi’ite, non-Arab Iran in an Iraqi intifada fought, in part, by determined Sunnis. Bin Laden in a tape recording released on December 27, 2004, declared: “When there is blatant helplessness in Palestine and Iraq, jihad [becomes] a personal duty incumbent upon those around them, such as the residents of Saudi Arabia, Syria, Jordan, Turkey, Iran, and Kuwait, and if [they are also] unable to carry it out, the duty is incumbent upon those around them.” Thus, not only did bin Laden deem it acceptable for Iran to play a central rôle in the jihad, but, moreover, explained that it was actually a religious duty to do so, regardless of national or theological differences.


1. Associated Press confirmed the GIS reports on January 7, 2004, in a dispatch which noted:

An Iraqi militant suspected of involvement in beheadings and other bloody attacks told Iraqi authorities that his group has links with Iran and Syria, according to a tape aired Friday [January 7, 2004] by an Arabic TV station funded by the US Government.

Moayad Ahmed Yasseen, leader of Jaish Mohammed [believed to operate entirely autonomously from — but certainly sympathetically with — the Pakistan/India-based Jaish-e Mohammadi, which see — GIS Ed.] which is Arabic for Mohammed's Army, was captured nearly two months ago in Fallujah, the former guerilla stronghold west of Baghdad.

Alhurra television, which has its headquarters in Washington, said the tape of his purported confession was made December 24 [2004] and provided to the station by Iraq's Ministry of Defense.

Iraqi and US officials, including President Bush, have accused Syria and Iran of meddling in Iraq's affairs and aiding insurgents, a charge both nations vehemently deny. Interim Prime Minister Ayad Allawi said last week that Iraq's patience was running out with countries that support the insurgency.

On the tape, Yasseen, a colonel in Saddam Hussein's army, said two other former Iraqi military officers belonging to his group were sent "to Iran in April or May [2004], where they met a number of Iranian intelligence officials." He said they also met with Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamene’i.

He said Iranian officials provided money, weapons "and, as far as I know, even car bombs" for Jaish Mohammed.

Yasseen also said he got permission from Saddam — while the former dictator was in hiding after his ouster by the US-led invasion in 2003 — to cross into Syria and meet with a Syrian intelligence officer to ask for money and weapons. He didn't say if the request was met.

The US military has said Jaish Mohammed appears to be an umbrella group for former Iraqi intelligence agents, army officers, security officials and members of Saddam's Ba’ath Party.

The group is known to have cooperated with Jordanian terrorist leader Abu Musab al-Zarqawi as well as other Saddam loyalists and al-Qaida supporters. Allawi has accused Jaish Mohammed of killing and beheading a number of Iraqis, Arabs and foreigners in Iraq.

Meanwhile, Prime Minister Allawi was quoted in the United Arab Emirates daily al-Bayan, on January 8, 2004, as saying: “Syria has been an important factor of stability in Iraq and vise versa … A positive relationship with Syria is at the top of my priorities.” This came after Defense Minister Shaalan threatened, on January 8, 2004, in a statement to Agence France Press (AFP): “We do not want to be a party in harming either Syria or Iran ... (But) we have the means of shifting the battlefield from the streets of Baghdad to the streets of Tehran and Damascus.”