The US military command in Iraq continues to
talk about an alleged pipeline of Iranian weapons to Iraqi Shiites opposing
the US occupation, implying that they have become dependent on Iran for indirect-fire
weapons and rocket-propelled grenades (RPGs).
But US officials have failed thus far to provide evidence that would support
that claim, and a long-delayed US military report on Iranian arms is unlikely
to offer any data on what proportion of the weapons in the hands of Shiite fighters
are from Iran and what proportion comes from purchases on the open market.
When Maj. Gen. Kevin Bergner was asked that question at a briefing May 8, he
did not answer it directly. Instead Bergner reverted to a standard US military
line that these groups "could not do what they're doing without the support
of foreign support [sic]." Then he defined "foreign support"
to include training and funding as well as weapons, implicitly conceding that
he did not have much of a case based on weapons alone.
Bergner's refusal to address that question reflects a fundamental problem with
the US claims about Iranian weapons in Iraq: if there are indeed any Iranian
rockets and mortars, and RPGs in the Mahdi Army's arsenal of stand-off weapons,
they represent an insignificant part of it.
Reports by the US command in Iraq over the past 15 months cited only a handful
of Iranian weapons out of hundreds counted in caches found in Shiite areas.
Nearly 700 mortars and rockets were reported by specific caliber size, along
with a handful of RPGs, in nearly two dozen caches. Of that total, only four
rockets were reported as being of Iranian origin, and another 15 were listed
as possibly being Iranian.
Although those reports do not represent all the Mahdi Army caches found, they
provide further evidence of the relative importance of Iranian rockets, mortars
and RPGs in the Mahdi Army arsenal. That is because US military officials are
so eager to publicize any discovery of an Iranian-made weapon system that they
would exploit any opportunity available to do so.
The US command has gone so far as to claim that it had found "four Iranian
hand grenades" but they were in a cache of weapons found in an al Qaeda
Based on weapons caches discovered over the past 15 months, the Mahdi Army
has relied overwhelmingly on four types of heavy weapons: 60mm and 120mm mortars,
107mm rocket, and 57mm anti-tank missile.
Those are essentially the same mortars and rockets that have turned up in al
Qaeda and Sunni insurgent weapons caches, suggesting that both groups have obtained
their heavier weapons from the international arms market. In fact, 60mm and
120mm mortars were used by Sunni guerrillas in the very early months of the
war against US occupation troops.
A US explosives expert, Maj. Marty Weber, confirmed in April 2007 that most
107mm rockets found in Iraq were Chinese-made. He claimed that Iran had repainted
Chinese 60mm and 107mm rockets them and sold them on the "open market".
However, Chinese, Yugoslav and Pakistani 107mm rockets have also been the weapon
of choice of Taliban guerrillas in Afghanistan, according to US military officers
The US military has refrained from making any charges against Iran over the
107mm rockets found in Iraq, perhaps because it would support the conclusion
that the Mahdi Army was buying weapons on the international market rather than
obtaining them from the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps.
US officials tried to capitalize on the increased mortar and rocket attacks
on the Green Zone and US military headquarters last year to argue that they
were the result of a rising tide of Iranian supply of such standoff weapons
particularly 240mm rockets to what the US command calls "special
groups" of Shiite militiamen.
One US official, who insisted on being identified only as a "senior
official", told this writer in mid-September 2007 that rockets and mortars
provided by Iran since the beginning of that year and especially 240 mm rockets
were doing much greater damage because of their greater accuracy and power
compared with the older Katyusha rockets mostly from Iraqi stocks that
had been employed in attacking US bases and the Green Zone in previous years.
But evidence from the US command itself contradicts that dramatic narrative
of a bold, new Iranian intervention in the war. A Multinational Force - Iraq
press release dated Jun. 1, 2007 reported that a cache of weapons had been found
in an area from which Mahdi Army troops had fired rockets at the Green Zone.
It did not claim any Iranian rockets or mortars in the cache but only 20 107mm
rocket warheads, three fully assembled 107mm rockets and one 60mm mortar.
No 240mm rocket has been reported found in a Mahdi Army weapons cache over
the past year, but a single warhead for a 240mm rocket was reported to have
been found in Basra Apr. 19. No official claim has been made that it was manufactured
in Iran, however.
After a rocket fired at Camp Victory on Sep. 11, 2007 killed one and wounded
11 others, US officials told the news media that the command spokesman, Gen.
Bergner, would display fragments of a 240mm rocket complete with Iranian
markings at his next press briefing in order to "show the link between
the Iranian weapons and the damage they are doing".
But Bergner admitted to the media that there were no discernible Iranian markings
on the fragment, and that a number of countries manufacture 240mm rockets. He
was able to assert only that ordnance experts "assess it is of [sic] consistent
with the rockets of Iranian origin we have seen used in other attacks."
That was a very weak claim, because Bergner had not provided any evidence to
the media that previous attacks had involved Iranian 240mm rockets either.
When the military headquarters at Camp Victory was hit by rocket fire last
Oct. 12, officials admitted that it was 107mm rockets, not 240mm rockets that
had been used.
Gen. David Petraeus insisted last October that there is "absolutely no
question" that Iran is providing RPG-29 rocket-propelled grenade launchers
to Iraqi Shiite groups. But RPG-29s are manufactured by Russia, not Iran. Syria
was known to have purchased large quantities of the RPG-29 in 1999-2000. Both
the Israeli newspaper Haaretz and the Beirut-based defense monthly Defense 21
have confirmed that the RPG-29s used by Hezbollah in 2006 were Russian-made
weapons obtained via Syria.
In weapons caches reported from Shiite locations, not a single RPG-29 has been
identified. Of the 160 RPG launchers reported in Mahdi Army caches, along with
800 RPG missiles, none were identified as Iranian, although some were identified
as being Soviet-made. Only 11 were reported to be RPG-7s a type of launcher
that is made by Russia and China as well as Iran and used by 40 countries around
(Inter Press Service)