The Victor?

In his continuing effort to bolster support for the Iraq war, President Bush traveled to Reno, Nevada, on August 28 to speak to the annual convention of the American Legion. He emphatically warned of the Iranian threat should the United States withdraw from Iraq. Said the President, “For all those who ask whether the fight in Iraq is worth it, imagine an Iraq where militia groups backed by Iran control large parts of the country.”

On the same day, in the southern Iraqi city of Karbala, the Mahdi Army, a militia loyal to the radical Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, battled government security forces around the shrine of Imam Hussein, one of Shiite Islam’s holiest places. A million pilgrims were in the city and fifty-one died.

The US did not directly intervene, but American jets flew overhead in support of the government security forces. As elsewhere in the south, those Iraqi forces are dominated by the Badr Organization, a militia founded, trained, armed, and financed by Iran. When US forces ousted Saddam’s regime from the south in early April 2003, the Badr Organization infiltrated from Iran to fill the void left by the Bush administration’s failure to plan for security and governance in post-invasion Iraq.

In the months that followed, the US-run Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) appointed Badr Organization leaders to key positions in Iraq’s American-created army and police. At the same time, L. Paul Bremer’s CPA appointed party officials from the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI) to be governors and serve on governorate councils throughout southern Iraq. SCIRI, recently renamed the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council (SIIC), was founded at the Ayatollah Khomeini’s direction in Tehran in 1982. The Badr Organization is the militia associated with SCIRI.

In the January 2005 elections, SCIRI became the most important component of Iraq’s ruling Shiite coalition. In exchange for not taking the prime minister’s slot, SCIRI won the right to name key ministers, including the minister of the interior. From that ministry, SCIRI placed Badr militiamen throughout Iraq’s national police.

In short, George W. Bush had from the first facilitated the very event he warned would be a disastrous consequence of a US withdrawal from Iraq: the takeover of a large part of the country by an Iranian-backed militia. And while the President contrasts the promise of democracy in Iraq with the tyranny in Iran, there is now substantially more personal freedom in Iran than in southern Iraq.

Iran’s role in Iraq is pervasive, but also subtle. When Iraq drafted its permanent constitution in 2005, the American ambassador energetically engaged in all parts of the process. But behind the scenes, the Iranian ambassador intervened to block provisions that Tehran did not like. As it happened, both the Americans and the Iranians wanted to strengthen Iraq’s central government. While the Bush administration clung to the mirage of a single Iraqi people, Tehran worked to give its proxies, the pro-Iranian Iraqis it …

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