Page 1 of 2 The great games over Iraq
By Kaveh L Afrasiabi
No doubt, we are now witnessing the dawn of a new great game over Iraq. A
recent communique by the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) has stated its
"collective desire to prevent Iraq from becoming a battleground for regional
and international powers".
The irony, however, is that this communique is also signed by two "out of area"
Arab states, Jordan and Egypt, whose inclusion in the security calculus of the
Persian Gulf rattles Iran and fuels the
growing rivalry between the Shi'ite power bloc and the Sunni Arabs led by Saudi
Simultaneously, in a clue to the rather dizzying pattern of cross-cutting,
paradoxical alliances and would-be alliances, the US has signaled a dramatic
shift in its Iraq policy, aimed at deterring Iran's "hegemony", which puts
Washington in league with the anti-Iran Sunni alliance precisely at a time when
the US-Shi'ite alliance in Iraq is, while strained, still holding and there is
no conceivable alternative to it, given the Shi'ite majority in the
country. Or is there?
Shi'ites betrayed again?
Are they going to be betrayed again? This is a question increasingly on the
mind of many Shi'ites in Iran, Iraq and elsewhere, who have a vivid memory of
how then-US president George H W Bush betrayed Iraq's Shi'ites during the Gulf
War in 1991 by first exhorting them to rebel against the late Iraqi president
Saddam Hussein and, when they did in Basra, Najaf and Karbala, became complicit
in their suppression.
The Americans not only failed to support them but, worse, by lifting the no-fly
zone for Saddam's helicopters that airlifted troops to the rebellious south,
the dictator's forces were given the green light by none other than the US
Central Command chief at the time, General Norman Schwarzkopf. That little
episode is barely mentioned in Schwarzkopf's memoir, A Soldier of Conscience.
From the vantage point of many Shi'ites in the region, the new accent on Iran
in Iraq is a ruse for a change of heart in Washington toward the post-Saddam
political process, and a prelude for a U-turn. Little wonder it took Prime
Minister Nuri al-Maliki more than two days to provide a tepid response to US
President George W Bush's "new Iraq strategy", which ignores Maliki's own
script for Baghdad security - the latter includes his appointment of a new
commander for Baghdad, from the Shi'ite south and distrusted by the US
"The US wants to have its cake and eat it too," a Tehran political analyst told
the author, adding, "Bush is now appeasing the Sunni bloc and squeezing the
Shi'ites and still wants to claim a continuity of US policy in Iraq when it is
abundantly clear that discontinuity is gaining the upper hand."
Another point conveyed by this analyst concerned the US kidnapping of
several Iranians at the consular office in the Kurdish city of Irbil. US
officials have accused those Iranians of being from the Qods Group of the
Revolutionary Guards and involved in subversive activities, a charge vigorously
denied by Tehran.
A shade of Bosnia
"There is a shade of Bosnia here," explained the analyst, referring to the
US-Iran cooperation in Bosnia-Herzegovina during the early 1990s, which saved
the beleaguered Bosnian Muslims from Serbian atrocities, notwithstanding a
United Nations arms embargo.
Then-US president Bill Clinton, urged by his top aides, authorized that
cooperation, which involved "the Pentagon's own secret service" instead of the
Central Intelligence Agency, as per a 1997 congressional document. According to
that report, the United States was "very closely involved" in the Iranian arms
pipeline to Bosnia through Turkey and Croatia, which involved small arms,
mortars, anti-tank guns and surface-to-air missiles.
Indeed, the history of US-Qods cooperation in Bosnia and subsequently in
Afghanistan is instructive, given the avalanche of negative commentaries in the
US media that portray a completely adversarial relationship between the US and
Iran. In 1996, Newt Gingrich, then Speaker of the US House of Representative,
set up a special committee to investigate US-Iran relations in Bosnia, which
some US senators, including John Kerry, castigated as Clinton's version of
the "Iran-Contra affair", with Kerry accusing Clinton of "turning a blind eye
to Iranian shipments".
As a result of such political pressures, the Clinton administration shifted its
policy toward the Iranians in Bosnia: the Revolutionary Guards' offices in
Bosnia were ordered closed and, in one case reminiscent of the Irbil incident,
US forces took over one of those liaison offices and temporarily apprehended
several Iranians whom they accused of subversive activities.
Expelling the Iranians from Bosnia after they were no longer needed
seemed like the right policy, and all the signs are that the US is inclined to
repeat it in Iraq, irrespective of the stark differences relating to Iran's
proximity to neighboring Iraq and the wealth of historical and religious ties.
But as stated above, in addition to Bosnia, the US military and the Qods Group
cooperated in Afghanistan. In a conversation with the author in Tehran in the
autumn of 2004, a Revolutionary Guard commander recalled his meeting with a top
US general in a tent at Baghram Airport, where the two hammered out the
number of northern front troops who would enter Kabul without causing
Turning to Iraq, the question is: What is the ultimate objective of the US?
Clearly, the Bush administration has nullified the possibility of US-Iran
cooperation in Iraq, as called for by the