Iran’s presence shadowy in Iraq

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BAQOUBA, Iraq — It is early evening when the call comes through to the Joint Command and Control office at the coalition outpost in central Baqouba. An Iraqi intelligence officer reports that 50 Iranians have been spotted inside a civilian compound in a nearby village.

Spc. Ryan Boschert, on his second tour of duty in Iraq, immediately instructs his Iraqi co-worker to have the Iraqi army investigate.

The telephone tip said the Iranians were at a village on the outskirts of Baqouba, the capital of Diyala province on the border with Shi’ite Iran, which is contested territory in the escalating strife between Iraq’s Sunni and Shi’ite Muslims. In recent months, the province has experienced an increase in the presence of Shi’ite militias and in sectarian attacks.

In March, the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad accused Iran of carrying out “unhelpful activities” in Iraq. But for U.S. military personnel charged with finding proof of an Iranian role in the insurgency in Iraq, there is scant hard evidence that Tehran is supplying the insurgents or meddling in its neighbor’s affairs.

In Iraqi hands

Quick responses are becoming infrequent during this period of transition, in which the U.S.-led multinational forces are handing over more responsibility to Iraqi troops and police.

The Iraqi army is wary of stumbling into a nighttime ambush, so the intelligence report about Iranian presence goes unverified. After several prompts to his hesitant Iraqi counterpart, Spc. Boschert drops the issue, saying: “Hey man, it isn’t my country. I don’t care.”

“We want the Iraqis to make these decisions,” said Lt. Col. William Benson, commander of the U.S. detachment in the area.

“We do end up chasing ghosts around the battlefield quite a bit,” Col. Benson said, “but sometimes it’s just as useful to know what’s not there as it is to know what is.”

With Washington preparing to soon open discussions with Tehran over its role in Iraq, the dominant question is whether Iran is trying to destabilize Iraq, which is on the brink of civil war. U.S. military officials point to the establishment of Iran-backed organizations in Diyala — such as the Badr Brigade and the Mahdi Army — as early as 2003.

The Badr Brigade is a 25,000-strong force of the formerly Iran-based Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq, and the Mahdi Army is a militia of about 10,000 belonging to nationalist Iraqi Shi’ite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr.

On a recent trip to Saudi Arabia, Sheik al-Sadr was reported to have told Saudi leaders that he foresees Iraq collapsing into Shi’ite, Sunni and Kurdish enclaves.

Many Sunnis in Diyala fear that the power vacuum left by a U.S. withdrawal would be filled by Iran.

Iran intelligence

“The key point is to understand what kind of influence Iran will bring,” said a high-ranking U.S. officer who declined to be named. “Will it be destabilizing or stabilizing? If it’s the latter, then we’re fine with that. What we’re all about is having a stable Middle East in which terrorists can’t thrive.”

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