White House squabble on releasing
Iranians By Gareth Porter
WASHINGTON - Recent statements by the US
military that Iran had pledged to stop supplying
weapons to Shi'ite militias in Iraq and that this
alleged flow of arms may have stopped in August
were part of a behind-the-scenes struggle over
whether the George W Bush administration should
make a gesture to Iran by releasing five Iranian
prisoners held since January.
military experts found evidence that recently
discovered weapons caches probably dated back to
early 2007, it strengthened the hand of those in
the administration arguing for
release and weakened the position of Vice
President Dick Cheney and General David Petraeus,
who sought to scuttle any release by insisting
that there was no evidence that Iran had changed
its alleged policy of destabilizing Iraq.
The issue of releasing the five Iranians
kidnapped by US troops in Irbil in January has
divided the Bush administration since last spring.
In early April, after Iran released 15 British
sailors and marines, Secretary of State
Condoleezza Rice argued that the Iranians should
now be released, but Cheney insisted that the
United States should hold on to them.
cases of the "Irbil five" were scheduled to be
reviewed again in October, and the issue was so
sensitive that it was understood that the decision
would be made by the White House, as reported by
the Washington Post on October 3.
September and October, officials of the
Shi'ite-dominated government of Prime Minister
Nuri al-Maliki were pressing for the release of
the Irbil five, according to Iraqi Foreign
Minister Hoshyar Zebari. They were arguing that
Iranian policy had helped bring about the
six-month ceasefire declared by Muqtada al-Sadr on
August 29 and thus a reduction in attacks by units
of his Mahdi Army.
In the context of this
behind-the-scenes debate, Petraeus told reporters
on September 30 that Iranian President Mahmud
Ahmadinejad had "pledged he would stop the flow of
weapons, the training, the funding and the
directing of these militia extremists ..."
That claim of Iranian admission of guilt
about masterminding Shi'ite militia attacks was
contradicted by the accounts given by aides to
Maliki that the Iranian leaders had pledged in
their meetings with him in August to do more to
police the Iran-Iraq border to prevent weapons
from entering Iraq from Iran.
focused the issue on whether the Iranian weapons
flow had slowed, Petraeus asserted that he had
seen nothing that was "statistically significant,
much less evidence" that there had been "a real
reduction in the assistance provided".
Petraeus' arguments appear to have
represented the response of the Cheney faction to
the Iraqi government assertion that Iran had
helped reduce the level of Shi'ite militia
Lieutenant General Raymond
Odierno, who is responsible for daily operations
in Iraq, did not hide the fact that Petraeus
opposed the release of the Irbil five. In a
meeting with Washington Post editors and reporters
on October 3, he declared, "Militarily, we should
hold on to them."
According to a report in
the Los Angeles Times on October 31, "some State
Department officials" were continuing to urge the
release of the Irbil five. In an October 25
meeting with journalists, Ambassador Ryan Crocker
noted the ceasefire ordered by Muqtada, but said
it was "unclear to us what role, if any, Iran
might have played in it ..."
On July 24,
after a meeting with his Iranian counterpart,
Crocker had told reporters the United States held
Iran responsible for Shi'ite militia attacks in
Iraq, citing an increase in indirect fire attacks
launched from Muqtada's stronghold Sadr City in
particular. That implied that a reduction in
attacks would be regarded as evidence of a change
in Iranian policy.
Furthermore, Zebari had
been arguing to both Crocker and the US military
that the Iranians had indeed played a key role in
the ceasefire decision. Zebari revealed that Iraqi
government argument when he told Reuters on
November 6 that Iran had been "instrumental in
reining in the militias and the Mahdi Army by
using its influence" and called Iran's
relationship with the militias "part of the
security improvement". The same argument was
repeated by Maliki spokesman Ali al-Dabbagh at a
lunch with reporters on November 17.
Although Muqtada had his own reasons for
declaring a ceasefire with the US military and his
Shi'ite rivals, the Iranian leaders no doubt urged
him to reach a new accord with Maliki and the
Shi'ite parties supporting his government. Iran
has tried to maintain good relations with all
major Shi'ite factions.
With the fate of
the Irbil five still undecided, Odierno was asked
by a journalist at a November 1 press briefing
whether the reduction in attacks by Shi'ites was
related to the alleged reduction in Iranian
support. Although he acknowledged Muqtada's
ceasefire announcement, Odierno explained the
slowing of attacks as primarily the result of
successful US military operations against the
Odierno mentioned a "huge EFP
[explosively formed penetrator] cache" just
discovered the previous week and an "initial
assessment" that it may have been there since
early 2007. But he said it was "unclear ...
whether they have slowed down bringing in weapons
and supporting the insurgency or not. I'll still
wait and see."
But within a few days, the
White House had decided to override the
Petraeus-Odierno view of Iranian policy in
conjunction with deciding to release two of the
On November 6, US military
spokesman Rear Admiral Gregory Smith said it was
the military's judgment that two recent large EFP
caches predated what he said was an Iranian pledge
to Maliki in August. Smith then announced that
another round of trilateral working group talks
with representatives of Iraq, Iran and the US was
expected and that nine Iranians in US custody,
including two of the Irbil five, would soon be
freed. They were freed on November 9. A military
statement released at the time said the nine "no
longer pose a security risk" and have no
Major General James
Simmons, the deputy commander in charge of
countering roadside bombs, explained in a November
15 briefing that new forensics capabilities now
made it possible to "determine that those weapons
systems have been there for months".
Although he reported the verdict about the
weapons caches, military spokesman Smith also went
out of his way to restate the arguments that
Cheney's office had pushed since late 2006: that
all the EFP caches discovered in Iraq "originated
in Iran", that the Iranian Revolutionary Guards
Corps' Quds Force was responsible for all the
weapons found and that the "Iranian leadership is
aware" of its activities.
about whether EFPs were being manufactured in
Iraq, however, Smith was evasive. He said, "I
won't indicate necessarily the location" of EFP
manufacture, adding that "the origination of the
EFPs, we believe are [sic] in Iran".
Odierno had admitted to NBC's Jane Arraf
in February that "some of the [EFP] technologies"
were "probably being constructed here".
Nevertheless, statements by the US command have
always avoided acknowledging that EFPs - as well
as the copper lids, which are the most technically
demanding part of the technology are being
manufactured inside Iraq.
decision in early November to cite forensic
evidence that went against his position on the
prisoner release, Petraeus repeated in a Wall
Street Journal interview last week the claim that
Iran had made "unequivocal pledges to stop the
funding, training, arming and directing of militia
extremists in Iraq". He added that "we have some
By effectively putting the onus
on Iran to prove that it is not sponsoring Shi'ite
militias, the Petraeus tactic positions the
hardliners in the administration to continue to
oppose any further move to reduce tensions with
Gareth Porter is an
investigative historian and journalist
specializing in US national security policy. His
latest book, Perils of Dominance: Imbalance of
Power and the Road to War in Vietnam, was
published in June 2005.