U.S. Launches Armed Force to Block Iranian Influence in Iraq
Corrected: 1/19/07, 3:55 p.m.
The U.S. military has launched a special operations task force to break up Iranian influence in Iraq, according to U.S. News sources. The special operations mission, known as Task Force 16, was created late last year to target Iranians trafficking arms and training Shiite militia forces. The operation is modeled on Task Force 15, a clandestine cadre of Navy SEALs, Army Delta Force soldiers, and CIA operatives with a mission to capture or kill al Qaeda operatives and Baathist insurgents in Iraq.
Task Force 15 killed al Qaeda's leader in Iraq, Abu Musab Zarqawi, last June.
The new classified directive is part of an escalation of military countermeasures against Iran, authorized by President Bush, to strike back at what military officials describe as a widespread web of Iranian influence in Iraq that includes providing weapons, training, and money to Shiite militias.
"It's present, and the issue is how do you deal with it," says a senior U.S. military official. "That's the question of the day. Those networks are something you've got to deal with. You've got to figure out, bottom line, who plans them, who finances them, who brings stuff across the borders."
Bush signaled the new get-tough stance toward Iran in his recent televised address on Iraq policy.
"We will disrupt the attacks on our forces," Bush said in his speech to the nation last week. "We'll interrupt the flow of support from Iran and Syria. We will seek out and destroy the networks providing advanced weaponry and training to our enemies in Iraq."
But the details have been sketchy on how that is being implemented.
U.S. Troops Grabbed Five Iranians
On the heels of Bush's speech, U.S. forces grabbed five Iranians with alleged ties to the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps in the northern Iraqi city of Irbil, reportedly using stun bombs, seizing computers, and taking down an Iranian flag from the raided building's roof. Iran claimed the building was a consulate and the men were diplomats. One of Iraq's most powerful Shiite politicians condemned the raid, calling it an attack on Iraq's sovereignty.
Iran's efforts to foment chaos in Iraq are primarily carried out by the Iranian intelligence service and the Revolutionary Guards' al-Quds (Jerusalem) Brigade, the foreign operations arm of the Iranian military, which also supports Hezbollah in Lebanon and Hamas in the Palestinian territories. The most visible Iranian political and militia involvement has been in predominantly Shiite southern Iraq, especially in and around the oil export city of Basra. Iran is also seen as a major backer of anti-American Iraqi Shiite leader Moqtada al Sadr and his Mahdi Army militia, blamed for abducting and killing Iraqi Sunnis.
The United States is trying to counteract the impression of being overtaxed by its wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
"The Iranians clearly believe that we are tied down in Iraq, that they have the initiative, that they are able to press us in many ways," Secretary of Defense Robert Gates said in Brussels on Monday.
To show otherwise and to present a powerful military face, the U.S. Navy will be stationing a second aircraft-carrier group in the Persian Gulf for the first time since the 2003 Iraq invasion. The Pentagon also said it is sending additional Patriot antimissile batteries to defend friendly gulf Arab states that are within range of Iranian missiles.
U.S. officials see Iranian fingerprints in violent attacks throughout Iraq and all but blame Iran for complicity in the deaths of American soldiers.
The chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Gen. Peter Pace, voiced such concerns in Senate testimony last week, saying that "we know that Iranian-supplied and -made weapons are on the streets of Baghdad killing our troops." U.S. officials, including the president, have stopped just sort of directly blaming Iranian government leaders for American deaths in Iraqa claim that, if made, could lead to pressure for U.S. military action against Iran itself.
Military Cites Iranian-Made Roadside Bombs
U.S. military officials have been tracing the growth of Iranian influence through the increased use of Iranian-made explosively formed projectiles (or EFPs) as roadside bombs. When this particularly deadly and distinct variation on the improvised explosive device detonates, it melts and reshapes metal, turning it into what is essentially a deadly dart that punches through a humvee's armor plates.
"When the EFPs start popping up, we know, oh, that's Iran, that's Shia," says one U.S. special operations officer who served in Iraq. A senior American commander in Baghdad adds that the military has been able to trace numbers and manufacture dates back to Iran.
And the use of weapons like EFPs, say soldiers on the ground in Iraq, is spreading.
"They were initially used just down south, where Iran has a lot of influence," says the officer. Now they are moving into Baghdad and areas north of the city as well. "That is a change. If you follow the track of them, it also follows the track of Iranian influence."
In the restive province of Diyala, what has long been a transit point for goods and trafficked arms flowing across the border with Iran, U.S. military operatives have intercepted donkeys carrying Russian antitank mines and other weapons. Iran uses "a certain type of mortar," adds the special operations officer. "We can look at it and say, 'This comes from Iran.' "
In Baghdad neighborhoods like Karrada, south of Sadr City, U.S. soldiers confiscate Iranian cellphones in Shiite militia strongholds and have arrested suspects who speak only Iran's Farsi language. A U.S. soldier south of Sadr City adds that he is increasingly told by locals that Iranians are coming to live in certain areas.
"Iranians are moving in," he says, adding that there is evidence that they train Mahdi Army snipers and help direct militia activity.
But it can often be unclear whether, for instance, munitions are coming at the direction of the Iranian government or are being provided by arms dealers or others who may be acting on their own. And U.S. officials sound a note of caution.
"A lot of people say there are Iranians here, there, and everywhere," says one U.S. military officer. "Lots are Shiites that fled [Iraq] during the Iran-Iraq War, went over to Iran for 20 years, and are now infiltrating back into Iraq," he says. "Are they are Iraqi or Iranian?"
U.S. military officials in Baghdad emphasize that in addition to military measures, the United States needs to pursue diplomatic tracks and emphasize the importance of trying to open a dialogue with Iran. Says a senior U.S. military official in Baghdad: "Not dialoguing, not engaging, is not going to solve this problem."
CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story incorrectly identified the country to which President Bush signaled the new get-tough stance in his recent televised address. Bush was speaking about Iran.