Iran shifts attention to brokering peace in Iraq
Details from a secret meeting between top Iranian and Iraqi officials signal Iran's aim to 'stop arming' militias.
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Iran "committed to acting more positively, and we are now awaiting evidence of that commitment," says Haidar Abbadi, a member of parliament from Maliki's Dawa Party. The Sadr City cease-fire is a "good sign" that shows the Iranians "putting pressure on the militants there."Skip to next paragraph
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"The Iranians have a direct role with the Mahdi Army," says Mr. Abbadi, "and the Iraqi government has decided it won't accept that role at this point."
Prior to that visit, in late March, Soleimani intervened with Sadr to halt the fighting in the southern city of Basra, stopping the violence just one day after a personal face-to-face request from Talabani.
But it is details of a second Talabani-Soleimani meeting just days later, around April 4, between two men who have known each other for more than two decades, that caught Iraqi and US attention.
Doubt on the US side runs deep, though Soleimani listed Iranian aims and even "common goals with the United States" in Iraq that virtually mirror stated US policy points, according to the description of the meeting.
"When we first saw it, we thought it was too good to be true," says the American official who provided details of the talks. "But there are so many layers of gray."
Among them, how to quantify Iran's compliance when much of the intelligence includes the discovery of caches of weapons – some of the materiel from Iran – that could have arrived in Iraq anytime this year or before. Or how to weigh the interrogations of a handful of Iraqi militants caught by US forces last year, who are purported to have said they received training – sometimes from Lebanese Hezbollah instructors – in Iran.
Iran denies those charges. And during a press conference a week ago, as Maj. Gen. Kevin Bergner provided a precise accounting of well over 25,000 items from recently found weapons caches, he surprisingly did not once mention Iran.
US officials say they are waiting for evidence of a change in Iran's behavior in Iraq, and will be watching for the results of a commission set up by Maliki to examine US charges.
"It's a very high-level committee that's going to make a deliberation and have a discussion with the Iranians on that," says Rear Adm. Patrick Driscoll, a US spokesman.
In this context, the conciliatory tone of Soleimani's meeting with Talabani surprised Iraqi and US officials alike.
"We all must work together – Iraq, Iran, and the United States – to stabilize the situation," the Iraqi president said Soleimani told him. He declared Iran's unequivocal support for the Maliki government, for its efforts to dismantle all militias, and Iran's support for the unity of Iraq.
Sadr was now the biggest threat to peace in Iraq, Soleimani said, echoing past Pentagon assessments. "We now recognize [that] Sadrists have gotten outside anyone's control" which is a "dangerous development for Iraq, for Iran and for all Shia," he indicated, according to the description. Iran could not control Sadr even in Iran, where the cleric is currently taking advanced religious training, and his return to Iraq would "be a big danger."
Iran's "only demand," Soleimani is said to have told Talabani, was that the anti-Iranian group Mujahideen-e Khalq (MEK or MKO), some 3,400 of whose militants still reside under US guard at Camp Ashraf, be forced to leave Iraq. US and Iraqi officials, too, have long been looking for ways to disband the camp.
Soleimani also, according to the official, said that Iran would "not stand in the way of [Iraqi] efforts to negotiate an agreement with the US," which he termed a "good thing for Iraq," referring to a deal on the long-term status of American troops in Iraq.
But hard-line newspapers in Tehran on Monday published denunciations of such a "humiliating" deal, accusing Maliki of giving in to American demands.
"The US-cooked agreement turns Iraq into a full-fledged colony, so that Iraqi officials will be totally powerless but American[s] will have full power to commit any action they want," the Jomhuri-e Islami newspaper wrote, according to the Associated Press.