WASHINGTON - Reviving
United States-Iran friction over Iraq may have
more to do with deteriorating relations over
Iran's nuclear program than with uncertainty over
US troop levels in Iraq beyond the end of this
In recent weeks, a chorus of US
officials has accused Iran of providing lethal
weapons to Iraqi Shi'ite militias that have
targeted US soldiers and caused a spike in US
death tolls. Similar charges have been made
against Iran in the past.
Robert Gates, then US defense secretary, said
Iran-backed Shi'ite militias were responsible for
the deaths of five US
soldiers on June 6, the
single-largest toll for the US in two years.
Overall, 15 US servicemen were killed in Iraq in
June, also a two- year record.
successor, Leon Panetta, repeated the charges this
week during his first trip to Iraq as defense
"We're seeing more of those
weapons going in from Iran, and they've really
hurt us," Panetta told reporters in Baghdad on
Monday. He threatened Iran with unspecified
retaliation if the attacks did not cease.
Panetta did not reveal any concrete
evidence for the charges. US officials and
military experts say he was referring to
"The main mass
casualty producer for US troops has been the IRAMS
[improvised rocket-assisted munitions] which have
been around for several years, and which I believe
are used exclusively by Iranian-supported groups,"
said Michael Eisenstadt, an Iraq expert at the
Washington Institute for Near East Policy, a
think-tank closely tied to the American Israel
Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC).
are indications that they may have gotten more
lethal lately, though I don't know if this is a
function of modifications to the weapons or to
improved training," he said.
accusations are hard if not impossible to prove
given the fact that Iraq is awash with weapons and
smuggling across the border with Iran is rampant.
Iran denies the allegations. "I believe the
Americans are trying to make excuses, create
Iranophobia, and cause doubt and anxiety among
Iraqi officials and society," Iranian ambassador
to Iraq Hassan Danaeifar told Press TV, an Iranian
state-owned channel. "The Americans are trying to
suggest that if they leave Iraq, Iraq will be
threatened by Iran."
Analysts say the
clashes - both rhetorical and real - may have more
to do with Iranian anger at mounting US economic
sanctions than they do with Iraqi security. Iraq -
and Afghanistan - are convenient venues for Iran
to target US forces.
"It's not about Iraq
at all, it's about US-Iran relations," Vali Nasr,
professor of international politics at the
Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy and a former
State Department adviser, told Inter Press Service
"There is no doubt that the
Iranians are escalating" to retaliate for US
sanctions over Iran's nuclear program, Nasr said.
The Barack Obama administration has been
increasing economic penalties against Iran for the
past year and pressuring foreign entities to
boycott Iranian banks, shipping and airlines. The
latest blow came on June 30 when Maersk, a major
Danish shipping line, ended operations at Iran's
three largest ports. A week earlier, the US had
stated that the company operating the ports was
controlled by the Islamic Revolutionary Guards
Iran has refused to suspend uranium
enrichment although it is required to do so by six
United Nations Security Council resolutions.
Attempts to negotiate a resolution with the US and
the other permanent members of the council plus
Germany have failed due to internal Iranian
political divisions and a lack of creativity and
political will on both sides.
of the nuclear dispute is landing in Iraq,
compounding political problems for Prime Minister
Nuri al-Maliki who has struggled to form a stable
coalition government more than a year after
officials, concerned about the logistics of
withdrawing troops on short notice, have been
pressuring Maliki to make up his mind about
keeping a residual US force. Under a 2008 Status
of Forces agreement, all remaining US troops -
which currently number 46,000 - are to be out by
"Do they want us to stay?
Don't they want us to stay?" Panetta complained on
Monday before a US military audience in Baghdad.
Panetta also urged Maliki, who has been serving
for months as interim defense and interior
minister, to name full-time officials to head
those key ministries.
"Damn it, make a
decision," Panetta said.
officials have expressed concern over whether Iraq
will be able to defend itself against terrorists
and foreign intruders eight years after US
invaders toppled Saddam Hussein's regime. No
matter what Maliki decides, a few hundred US
troops are likely to remain as military trainers
for US weapons. Some special forces are also
likely to stay as well as forces based in
semi-autonomous Iraqi Kurdistan, where the US
presence is popular.
A smaller US military
footprint would be in line with phasing out
counter-insurgency doctrine, once in vogue in the
Pentagon, in favor of counter-terrorism.
"There's been a shift in thinking in
Washington," Nasr said. "You don't need as many
troops. You need trainers and access to bases
where you can use drones and Special Forces."
Testifying before the US Congress last
month, Eisenstadt suggested keeping 1,500 troops
in Kurdistan to prevent clashes between the Iraqi
military and the Kurdish Peshmerga paramilitary
He told IPS that in addition, "a
small Joint Special Operations Command task force
would be essential for hunting down members of
al-Qaeda. and Iranian-supported special groups.
You might also need troops to serve as quick
reaction forces to help Iraqi security forces deal
with insurgent groups, and civilian contractors
providing protection for US diplomats. Some
military might serve as military movement teams
for US diplomats and civilians as well."
However, a smaller US force will remain
vulnerable to attack by Shi'ite militias. That in
turn could cause clashes between the United States
"The US is suggesting that the
gloves will come off" if attacks on US forces
continue, Nasr said. "The question is, 'Who will
blink?' This is very dangerous."