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November 16, 2008

US Task Force Found Few Iranian Arms in Iraq


by Gareth Porter

Last April, top George W. Bush administration officials, desperate to exploit any possible crack in the close relationship between the Nouri al-Maliki government and Iran, launched a new round of charges that Iran had stepped up covert arms assistance to Shia militias.

Secretary of Defense Robert M. Gates suggested that there was "some sense of an increased level of [Iranian] supply of weapons and support to these groups." And Washington Post reporter Karen DeYoung was told by military officials that the "plentiful, high quality weaponry" the militia was then using in Basra was "recently manufactured in Iran."

But a U.S. military task force had been passing on data to the Multi-National Force Iraq (MNFI) command that told a very different story. The data collected by the task force in the previous six weeks showed that relatively few of the weapons found in Shia militia caches were manufactured in Iran.

According to the data compiled by the task force, and made available to an academic research project last July, only 70 weapons believed to have been manufactured in Iran had been found in post-invasion weapons caches between mid-February and the second week in April. And those weapons represented only 17 percent of the weapons found in caches that had any Iranian weapons in them during that period.

The actual proportion of Iranian-made weapons to total weapons found, however, was significantly lower than that, because the task force was finding many more weapons caches in Shia areas that did not have any Iranian weapons in them.

The task force database identified 98 caches over the five-month period with at least one Iranian weapon, excluding caches believed to have been hidden prior to the 2003 U.S. invasion.

But according to an e-mail from the MNFI press desk this week, the task force found and analyzed a total of roughly 4,600 weapons caches during that same period.

The caches that included Iranian weapons thus represented just 2 percent of all caches found. That means Iranian-made weapons were a fraction of one percent of the total weapons found in Shia militia caches during that period.

The extremely small proportion of Iranian arms in Shia militia weapons caches further suggests that Shia militia fighters in Iraq had been getting weapons from local and international arms markets rather than from an official Iranian-sponsored smuggling network.

The database was compiled by MNFI's Task Force Troy, which was directed to examine all weapons caches found in Iraq beginning in early January 2008 to identify Iranian-made weapons. The database was released by MNFI last July to the Empirical Studies of Conflict project, cosponsored by the U.S. Military Academy and Princeton University, and was published for the first time by West Point's Counter-Terrorism Center last month as an appendix to a paper on Iranian strategy in Iraq by Joseph Felter and Brian Fishman.

In late April, the U.S. presented the Maliki government with a document that apparently listed various Iranian arms found in Iraq and highlighted alleged Iranian arms found in Basra. But the U.S. campaign to convince Iraqi officials collapsed when Task Force Troy analyzed a series of large weapons caches uncovered in Basra and Karbala in April and May.

Caches of arms found in Karbala late last April and May totaled more than 2,500 weapons, and caches in Basra included at least 3,700 weapons, according to official MNFI statements. That brought the total number of weapons found in those former Mahdi Army strongholds to more than 6,200 weapons.

But the task force found that none of those weapons were Iranian-made. The database lists three caches found Apr. 19, but provides no data on any of them. It lists no other caches for the region coinciding with that period, confirming that no weapons had been found to be of Iranian origin.

In announcing the weapons totals discovered in Basra to reporters on May 7, Maj. Gen. Kevin Bergner said nothing about the provenance of the weapons, implicitly admitting that they were not Iranian-made.

Only two months before the new high-level propaganda push on alleged Iranian weapons supply to Shia militias, the U.S. command had put out a story suggesting that large numbers of Iranian-supplied arms had been buried all over the country. On Feb. 17, 2008, U.S. military spokesman Rear Admiral Gregory Smith told reporters that Iraqi and coalition forces had captured 212 weapons caches across Iraq over the previous week "with growing links to the Iranian-backed special groups".

The Task Force Troy data for the week of Feb. 9-16 show, however, that the U.S. command had information on Iranian arms contradicting that propaganda line. According to the task force database, only five of those 212 caches contained any Iranian weapons that analysts believed might have been buried after the U.S. invasion. And the total number of confirmed Iranian-made weapons found in those five caches, according to the data, was eight, not including four Iranian-made hand grenades.

The task force database includes 350 armor-piercing explosively formed penetrators (EFPs) found in Iraqi weapons caches. However, the database does not identify any of the EFPs as Iranian weapons.

That treatment of EFPs in the caches appears to contradict claims by U.S. officials throughout 2007 and much of 2008 that EFPs were being smuggled into Iraq by the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps. The allegedly Iranian-manufactured EFPs had been the centerpiece of the U.S. military's February 2007 briefing charging Iran with arming Shia militiamen in Iraq.

Press reports of a series of discoveries of shops for manufacturing EFPs in Iraq in 2007 forced the U.S. command to admit that the capacity to manufacture EFPs was not limited to Iran. By the second half of 2008, U.S. officials had stopped referring to Iranian supply of EFPs altogether.

Felter and Fishman do not analyze the task force data in their paper, but they criticize official U.S. statements on Iranian weapons in Iraq. "Some reports erroneously attribute munitions similar to those produced in Iran as Iranian," they write, "while other Iranian munitions found in Iraq were likely purchased on the open market."

The co-authors note that Iranian arms can be purchased directly from the website of the Defense Industries of Iran with a credit card.

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  • Leon Hadar is the author of Sandstorm: Policy Failure in the Middle East (Palgrave Macmillan). He is the former United Nations bureau chief for the Jerusalem Post and is currently the Washington correspondent for the Business Times of Singapore. Visit his blog.

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