Early this month, the George W. Bush administration's
plan to create a new crescendo of accusations against Iran for allegedly smuggling
arms to Shiite militias in Iraq encountered not just one but two setbacks.
The government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki refused to endorse US charges
of Iranian involvement in arms smuggling to the Mahdi Army, and a plan to show
off a huge collection of Iranian arms captured in and around Karbala had to
be called off after it was discovered that none of the arms were of Iranian
The news media's failure to report that the arms captured from Shiite militiamen
in Karbala did not include a single Iranian weapon shielded the US military
from a much bigger blow to its anti-Iran strategy.
The Bush administration and top Iraq commander Gen. 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 Shiite militias.
The plan was keyed to a briefing document to be prepared by Petraeus on the
alleged Iranian role in arming and training Shiite militias that would be surfaced
publicly after the al-Maliki government had endorsed it and it used to accuse
Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Adm. Mike Mullen, told reporters on
Apr. 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 Basra bore 2008 manufacture dates on them.
US officials also planned to display Iranian weapons captured in both Basra
and Karbala to reporters. That sequence of media events would fill the airwaves
with spectacular news framing Iran as the culprit in Iraq for several days,
aimed at breaking down Congressional and public resistance to the idea that
Iranian bases supporting the meddling would have to be attacked.
But events in Iraq diverged from the plan. On May 4, after an Iraqi delegation
had returned from meetings in Iran, al-Maliki's spokesman, Ali al-Dabbagh, said
in a news conference that al-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 al-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
Al-Dabbagh made it clear that the government considered the US evidence of
Iranian government arms smuggling insufficient. "The proof we have is weapons
which are shown to have been made in Iran," al-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 al-Maliki for backtracking
on the issue. "We were blindsided by this," one of them told Zavis.
Then the Bush administration's campaign on Iranian arms encountered another
serious problem. The Iraqi commander in Karbala had announced on May 3 that
he had captured a large quantity of Iranian arms in and around that city.
Earlier the US military had said that it was up to the Iraqi government to
display captured Iranian weapons, but now an Iraqi commander was eager to show
off such weapons. Petraeus' staff alerted US media to a major news event in
which the captured Iranian arms in Karbala would be displayed and then destroyed.
But when US munitions experts went to Karbala to see the alleged cache of
Iranian weapons, they found nothing that 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 May
7, Brig. Gen. Kevin Bergner gave some details of the captured weapons in Karbala
but refrained from charging any Iranian role.
The cancellation 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 completely unreported in the world's news media.
A report on the Los Angeles Times' Blog "Babylon & Beyond"
by Baghdad correspondent Tina Susman was the only small crack in the media blackout.
The story was not carried in the Times itself, however.
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 were captured.
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 Shiite foes. Moqtada al-Sadr
declared his ceasefire last August after a major battle there, and fighting
had resumed there with the government operation in Basra in March. Thousands
of Mahdi Army fighters have fought there over the past year.
The official list of weapons captured in Karbala includes nine mortars, four
antiaircraft missiles, 45, RPGs and 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 Shiite militia's use of explosively formed penetrators (EFPs) as an
Iranian phenomenon. Among the captured weapons mentioned by Gen. Jawdat were
what he called "150 antitank bombs," as distinguished from ordinary
roadside explosive devices.
An "antitank 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 homemade 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
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, Gen. Bergner omitted any reference to them in his otherwise
accurate accounting of the Karbala weapons.
(Inter Press Service)