WASHINGTON - The George W Bush administration's plan to create a new
crescendo of accusations against Iran for allegedly smuggling arms to Shi'ite
militias in Iraq has encountered not just one but two setbacks.
The government of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki refused to endorse US charges
of Iranian involvement in arms smuggling to Shi'ite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr's
Mahdi Army, and a plan to show off a huge collection of Iranian arms captured
in and around the central city of Karbala had to be called off after it was
discovered that none of the arms was of Iranian origin.
The news media's failure to report that the arms captured from
Shi'ite militiamen in Karbala did not include a single Iranian weapon shielded
the US military from a big blow to its anti-Iran strategy.
The Bush administration and top Iraq commander General David Petraeus had
plotted a sequence of events that would build domestic US political support for
a possible strike against Iran over its "meddling" in Iraq, and especially its
alleged export of arms to Shi'ite militias.
The plan was keyed to a briefing document to be prepared by Petraeus
on the alleged Iranian role in arming and training Shi'ite militias that
would be revealed to the public after the Maliki government had endorsed it, and that would be
used to accuse Iran publicly.
Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Admiral Mike Mullen told reporters on
April 25 that Petraeus was preparing a briefing to be given "in the next couple
of weeks" that would provide detailed evidence of "just how far Iran is
reaching into Iraq to foment instability". The centerpiece of the Petraeus
document, completed in late April, was the claim that arms captured in the
southern city of Basra bore 2008 manufacture dates on them.
US officials also planned to display to reporters Iranian weapons captured in
both Basra and Karbala. That sequence of media events would fill the airwaves
for several days with spectacular news framing Iran as the culprit in Iraq,
aimed at breaking down US congressional and public resistance to the idea that
Iranian bases supporting the meddling would have to be attacked.
events in Iraq did not follow the script. On May 4, after an Iraqi delegation
had returned from meetings in Iran, Maliki's spokesman, Ali al-Dabbagh, said in
a news conference that Maliki was forming his own cabinet committee to
investigate the US claims. "We want to find tangible information and not
information based on speculation," he said.
Another adviser to Maliki, Haider Abadi, told the Los Angeles Times' Alexandra
Zavis that Iranian officials had given the delegation evidence disproving the
charges. "For us to be impartial, we have to investigate," Abadi said.
Dabbagh made it clear the government considered the US evidence of Iranian
government arms smuggling to be insufficient. "The proof we want is weapons
which are shown to have been made in Iran," Dabbagh said in a separate
interview with Reuters. "We want to trace back how they reached [Iraq], who is
using them, where are they getting it."
Senior US military officials were clearly furious with Maliki for backtracking
on the issue. "We were blindsided by this," one of them told Zavis.
Then the Bush
administration's plot encountered another serious
The Iraqi commander in Karbala had
announced on May 3 that he had captured a large
quantity of Iranian arms in and around the
city. Earlier, the US military had said that it was up to the Iraqi government
to display captured Iranian weapons, and now an Iraqi commander was eager to
do just that. Petraeus' staff alerted US media to a major news event in
which the captured Iranian arms in Karbala would be displayed and then
But when US munitions experts went to Karbala to see the alleged cache of
Iranian weapons, they found nothing they could credibly link to Iran.
The US command had to inform reporters that the event had been canceled,
explaining that it had all been a "misunderstanding". In his press briefing on
May 7, Brigadier General Kevin Bergner gave some details of the captured
weapons in Karbala but refrained from charging any Iranian role.
The cancelation of the planned display was a significant story, in light of the
well-known intention of the US command to convict Iran on the arms smuggling
charge. Nevertheless, it went unreported in the world's news media.
A report on the Los Angeles Times' blog "Babylon and Beyond" by Baghdad
correspondent Tina Susman was the only small crack in the media blackout. The
story was not carried in the Times itself.
The real significance of the captured weapons collected in Karbala was not the
obvious US political embarrassment over an Iraqi claim of captured Iranian arms
that turned out to be false. It was the deeper implication of the arms that
Karbala is one of Iraq's eight largest cities, and it has long been
the focus of major fighting between the Mahdi Army and its Shi'ite foes.
Muqtada declared his ceasefire last August after a major battle there, but fighting resumed there
and in Basra when the government launched a major operation in March. Thousands of Mahdi
Army fighters have fought in Karbala over the past year.
The official list of weapons captured in Karbala includes nine mortars, four
anti-aircraft missiles, 45 rocket propelled grenade (RPG) weapons, 800 RPG missiles
and 570 roadside explosive devices. The failure to find a single item of
Iranian origin among these heavier weapons, despite the deeply entrenched Mahdi
Army presence over many months, suggests that the dependence of the Mahdi Army
on arms manufactured in Iran is actually quite insignificant.
The Karbala weapons cache also raises new questions about the official US
narrative about the Shi'ite militia's use of explosively formed penetrators
(EFPs) as an Iranian phenomenon. Among the captured weapons mentioned by Major
General Raied Shaker Jawdat, commander of the Karbala police, were what he
called "150 anti-tank bombs", as distinguished from ordinary roadside explosive
An "anti-tank bomb" is a device that is capable of penetrating armor, which has
been introduced to the US public as the EFP. The US claim that Iran was behind
their growing use in Iraq was the centerpiece of the Bush administration's case
for an Iranian "proxy war" against the US in early 2007.
Soon after that, however, senior US military officials conceded that EFPs were
in fact being manufactured in Iraq itself, although they insisted that EFPs
alleged exported by Iran were superior to the home-made version.
The large cache of EFPs in Karbala which are admitted to be non-Iranian in
origin underlines the reality that the Mahdi Army procures its EFPs from a
variety of sources.
But for the media blackout of the story, the large EFP discovery in Karbala
would have further undermined the credibility of the US military's line on
Iran's export of the EFPs to Iraqi fighters.
Apparently understanding the potential political difficulties that the Karbala
EFP find could present, Bergner omitted any reference to them in his otherwise
accurate accounting of the Karbala weapons.
Gareth Porter is an historian and national security policy analyst. The
paperback edition of his latest book, Perils of Dominance: Imbalance of
Power and the Road to War in Vietnam, was published in 2006.