Iraq increasingly finds itself caught between U.S. and Iran
The US military in Iraq says Iran continues to aid militants, but Iraqis now say that they want their own evidence.
ISTANBUL, Turkey; and BAGHDAD
Iran says it will back Iraq in its ongoing fight against its Shiite militias. That pledge came after a delegation from Iraq's ruling Shiite bloc pressed its neighbor on what it called fresh "evidence" it was arming and training militants.Skip to next paragraph
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The five-member group sent by Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki returned to Baghdad Saturday, saying it had received a "positive" response after confronting officials with US and Iraqi intelligence on Iranian weapons caches that US officials say included weaponry manufactured in 2008.
"The delegation saw a positive stance from the brothers in Iran to support the government's efforts in extending the sovereignty of the state and to fight outlaws," Iraq's deputy parliament speaker Khalid al-Attiya, who visited Iran, said Saturday.
But the next day, the Iraqi government appeared to back away from its claims of Iranian meddling inside Iraq, highlighting the complexity and confusion over Iran's exact role in the Iraq war, its relationship with Moqtada al-Sadr's Mahdi Army militia, and the dilemma facing Mr. Maliki as his two chief allies – Washington and Tehran – engage in an ever-increasing war of words.
"We do not want to start a conflict with Iran," says Iraqi spokesman Ali al-Dabbagh. "We need our own government documentation of this interference, not from the Americans, not from the media."
He suggested Sunday that Iraq had no "hard evidence" of Iran's involvement or of the 2008 markings on seized weaponry, and that a top-level committee would be formed to investigate.
The Iraqi visit to Iran coincided with the release of the annual US terrorism report, which declared Iran, as in years past, to be the "most significant" state sponsor of terrorism. It also quietly raised the official number of US and Iraqi soldiers allegedly "killed" by Iranian actions in Iraq from "hundreds" to "thousands" – a surprise to analysts skeptical even of the lower figure.
Iran denies malicious meddling in Iraq, though an attempt by Iraqi military forces to take on Shiite militias in Basra in late March uncovered caches of Iranian weaponry. The fighting drew in US forces and was in fact halted only when the commander of Iran's Qods Force – which is accused by the US of spearheading "malign [Iranian] influence" in Iraq – intervened with Mr. Sadr.
But the result of those weapons finds, many discovered by Iraqi forces, has been a growing determination by Maliki to challenge Iran to get them stopped, Western diplomats and Iraqi officials say.
The Iraqis met with the Qods Force chief, Brig. Gen. Qassem Soleimani, who wields significant influence inside Iraq. During the fighting in late March and early April, Iraqi President Jalal Talabani appealed for the Iranian general's help to end the violence at a meeting on the Iran-Iraq border. Mr. Talabani, an ethnic Kurd who fielded his own Kurdish militia against Saddam Hussein from northern Iraq, has known General Soleimani for years, when Iran was Talabani's primary conduit of cash and arms.
Within a day fighting stopped. The Iraqi president also returned to Baghdad with a message to the Americans that Iran wanted to begin discussions on all issues – not just Iraq, Western diplomats say. Apparently viewing it as a stalling tactic, the Americans did not accept.