Biggest threat to Iraq? Iran-backed militias, not Al Qaeda, US official says

The series of bombings that hit Iraq Monday bear the markings of Al Qaeda, but in the long term, Iran-backed militias are a greater problem, says a top US military official.

Alaa al-Marjani/AP
Iraqi security forces inspect the site where a suicide car bomber plowed his vehicle into a checkpoint outside a police building just outside the holy city of Najaf, Iraq, Monday. US military officials attribute these attacks to al-Qaeda, which they say is a smaller threat compared with that posed by Iran-backed militias in Iraq.

On the heels one of the deadliest weeks of the year in Iraq, a senior US military official says Iranian-backed militias, not Al Qaeda in Iraq, pose the gravest threat to the country’s future.

Though the car bomb attacks that hit 13 cities in Iraq Monday bear the markings of Al Qaeda in Iraq, militias are the greater concern because of the support they “are getting on a daily basis from Iran," said Maj. Gen. Jeffrey Buchanan, spokesman for US forces in Iraq.

The military has found caches of rockets supplied by Iran and “manufactured as recently as 2010," he added.

By contrast, Al Qaeda has a weaker support structure, and there is no indication of any ties between the two. “We have not seen those connections,” Buchanan said in a luncheon with Pentagon reporters Tuesday afternoon. “Ideologically they’re so different.”

Buchanan estimates that there are currently between 800 and 1,000 members of Al Qaeda in Iraq, and most are local fighters. Foreign fighters “are really a trickle,” he said. By comparison, one Iranian-backed militia group, the Promise Day Brigade, has “several thousand” members.

The US military is grappling with how to best prepare the Iraqi military to meet threats after US troops depart. That departure is currently scheduled to take place by year’s end, unless the Iraqi government requests that US troops stay longer.

Military officials including Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff Adm. Mike Mullen have been warning for months that the Iraqi government must make a decision as quickly as possible about whether to invite US troops to stay in the country longer. With each passing day, some operations or training possibilities become “less feasible,” Buchanan said, though he adds that even if a base were to close down and the Iraqis decided they wanted it reopened, that could happen as well.

The greater issue at that point, military officials warn, would be the expense – a growing consideration as pressure to cut the defense budget grows.

In any event, threats from both Iranian-backed militias and Al Qaeda will continue after US troops depart, even if that deadline is extended beyond year’s end. Said Buchanan, “These groups aren’t going anywhere when US troops leave.”

But Buchanan also spoke of improvements in the performance of Iraqi security forces.

In the wake of a March operation in the Iraqi city of Tikrit, when a number of Iraqis were murdered “execution style,” Iraqi security forces “did not cover themselves with glory in dealing with it,” he acknowledged.

But two months later, during a similar operation, Iraqi security forces responded with “tremendously different results," he added, indicating that the forces are learning from their mistakes.

But while their performance continues to improve, Buchanan said, there are notable gaps that concern senior US military officials.

On matters of intelligence, which could be used to break up the sorts of spectacular attacks that occurred this week, Iraqi security forces remain “suspicious” of sharing information with each other. Buchanan attributes this tendency to a legacy of the Saddam Hussein era. “The fundamental issue for me is a lack of trust.”

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