Iran in deal to cut flow of arms
Prime Minister Nouri Maliki has secured a pledge from Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to help cut off weapons, funding and other support to extremist militiamen in Iraq, U.S. and Iraqi officials said Saturday.
Army Gen. David H. Petraeus, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, said there were signs of a slight drop in the types of attacks associated with Shiite militants since the deal was reached in August, and he raised the possibility that U.S. and Iraqi officials might be able to do something in return. But he said it was too early to tell whether there had been a real reduction in cross-border support.
“Honestly, and I really mean this, all of us would really welcome the opportunity to see this, confirm it and even -- in whatever way we could -- to reciprocate,” Petraeus said during a visit to the Baghdad district of Karada. “But it really is wait-and-see time right now still.”
Iranian officials have made no announcement of such a commitment and could not immediately be reached for comment. But they have consistently denied U.S. accusations that members of the elite Quds Force of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard are supplying advanced weaponry and other help to Shiite militiamen attacking U.S. troops.
Maliki’s aides characterized the agreement reached during a three-day visit to Iran as a promise to better police the long and porous border between the two countries.
“The agreement included a promise by the Iranian government to increase the number of Iranian forces on the border and to increase the efforts to guard the 1,000-kilometer-long [620-mile] frontier,” said Farooq Abdullah, one of Maliki’s political advisors.
An Iraqi official who traveled with Maliki to New York last week for the United Nations General Assembly, said, “The prime minister has been saying recently that the Iranians have been giving him strong promises . . . and that the results of these promises are starting to be felt . . . as far as the trafficking of weapons is concerned.” He asked not to be identified because he was not authorized to speak to the media.
But Petraeus said Maliki told him the that agreement went further than that.
“The president of Iran pledged to Prime Minister Maliki during a recent meeting that he would stop the flow of weapons, the training, the funding and the directing of these militia extremists that have been such a huge problem really for Iraq,” Petraeus said.
He reiterated allegations that Iran is supplying rocket-propelled grenades, shoulder-fired surface-to-air missiles, large rockets and armor-piercing bombs known as explosively formed penetrators, or EFPs, which have been used in attacks against U.S. forces.
“Certainly, indirect fire is quite a bit down,” Petraeus said, referring to rocket and mortar attacks. “EFPs, arguably a bit down; some of these others we haven’t seen for a bit. But it certainly is nothing sufficient to call even statistically significant, much less evidence that there has been a real reduction in the assistance provided.” He did not give any figures.
U.S.-led forces have captured “quite a few” of the weapons in recent operations, he said. The apparent dip in such attacks also could be connected to a decision by influential Shiite cleric Muqtada Sadr to suspend the operations of his Mahdi Army militia for six months to weed out what he called rogue elements.
“It was the extreme elements of those, the special groups as they are called, that had been employing those different arms,” Petraeus said.
Analysts cautioned against interpreting Ahmadinejad’s commitment as an admission of responsibility.
“The Iranians have repeatedly denied that they are providing weapons to the insurgents,” said Juan Cole, a Middle East expert at the University of Michigan. “In the absence of a transcript of what exactly Ahmadinejad admitted to or promised, it would be difficult to know what he meant. But it wouldn’t have been an admission to trying to make Iraq unstable.”
All sides, however, have been shaken by a recent escalation in clashes in southern Iraq, where Shiite factions with ties to Iran are vying for political influence and control of the oil-rich region. Tensions between Sadr’s Mahdi Army and its main rival, the Badr Organization, believed to be the largest recipient of Iranian backing, exploded last month during a major religious festival in Karbala. More than 50 people were killed in street battles. It was after the clashes that Sadr ordered his militia to stand down.
Badr is the armed wing of the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council, the United States’ top Shiite political ally in Iraq. Two provincial governors associated with the party were assassinated in quick succession in August, and four associates of Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, the supreme Shiite religious leader in Iraq, have been killed.
Maliki has played a delicate balancing act between Iraq’s two major allies, resisting Iran’s calls for an immediate U.S. pullout while deflecting U.S. demands that he take a tougher stand against Tehran. The detention of at least six Iranians by U.S. forces here has caused friction between U.S. and Iraqi officials, who view the arrests as a violation of their sovereignty. Iraqi officials say the Iranians are diplomats and a customs official who had been invited to the country, whereas the U.S. command alleges that they are Quds Force operatives sent to help arm and train militants.
The aide who accompanied Maliki to New York said the prime minister expressed his frustration to the Bush administration over those arrests and other instances in which U.S. forces acted without consulting his government.
Whereas attacks by Shiite militants appear to have dropped, Petraeus said, the Sunni militant group Al Qaeda in Iraq has stepped up operations since declaring an offensive during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan.
“Certainly Al Qaeda has had its Ramadan surge,” Petraeus said, but noted that the level of attacks was “substantially lower” than during the same period last year. He said he saw no need to revise the projections he presented to Congress this month for a gradual withdrawal of the additional forces deployed as part of the U.S. troop buildup.
Al Qaeda in Iraq militants have threatened in Web postings to kill Sunni Arab tribal leaders and other “traitors” who have joined the fight against them. Abdul Sattar Rishawi, who formed an alliance of Sunni tribal leaders to cooperate with the U.S. in the former insurgent stronghold of Anbar province, was killed in a roadside bombing on Sept. 13, the first day of Ramadan for Iraq’s Sunnis.
Last week, a suicide bomber killed at least 24 people and injured 37 at a reconciliation meeting between Sunni and Shiite tribal, religious, political and security leaders in Baqubah, capital of Diyala province.
At least 15 Iraqis were killed or found dead Saturday, victims of bombings, mortar fire, shootings and other violence.
The U.S. military reported the deaths of two soldiers, one during combat operations in a southern section of Baghdad and the other in Diyala. At least 3,802 U.S. personnel have died since the start of the Iraq war, according to icasualties.org, which tracks military deaths.
A U.S. military panel, meanwhile, sentenced an Army sniper to 150 days in confinement in the deaths of two Iraqi men. Spc. Jorge G. Sandoval Jr., 22, was also demoted to private and ordered to forfeit his salary for the days he spends behind bars.
Sandoval was acquitted of murder charges during the three-day court-martial but convicted of the lesser offense of placing a detonation wire on one of the bodies to make it appear that the man was an insurgent. Members of his sniper team testified that they were following orders when they shot the men on April 27 and May 11 near Iskandariya, south of Baghdad.
Sandoval’s sentence was commuted to 44 days for time served and labor he performed during the 106 days he spent in detention, the military said. The prosecution had sought a five-year sentence.
Two other snipers with the team, Sgt. Evan Vela and Staff Sgt. Michael A. Hensley, will be tried separately. All three soldiers are with the 1st Battalion, 501st Infantry Regiment, 4th Brigade (Airborne) of the 25th Infantry Division, based at Ft. Richardson, Alaska.
Times staff writer Ned Parker and special correspondent Saif Rasheed in Baghdad and special correspondents in Baghdad, Mosul and Kirkuk contributed to this report.