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.
"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."
Nawaf Obaid, a researcher with the Saudi National Security Assessment Project, said Iran's elite Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps "has been able to place key operatives in strategic positions in the new Iraqi administration. These include the office of the prime minister, the ministries and local governorships that have a majority-Shi'ite population."
In addition, Mr. Obaid said, the IRGC has established an intelligence directorate "devoted exclusively to monitoring the movements of U.S. and allied forces in Iraq."
One U.S. colonel, who declined to be identified, said the Badr Brigade and the Mahdi Army are active in Diyala, and "we operate every day on the assumption that they have an intelligence network active here."
"We assume that they exist, and we work on that assumption. But we have no proof of this yet," the colonel said.
U.S. intelligence officials are similarly tracking the moves of Diyala Gov. Ra'd Rashid al-Mulla Jawad, a Shi'ite Muslim. He went on a recent trip to Mashhad, an Iranian holy city, and returned with an Iranian pledge to build a hospital and a mosque in Baqouba, a U.S. official said.
Struggle fuels suspicions
In the streets of this provincial capital, residents say their governor has such good ties with the Iranians that he owns a house in Qom, the clerical capital of Iran.
"There's a huge power struggle going on in Baqouba, and the governor is highly suspect," said a resident who identified himself only as Haidar.
An Iraqi translator who monitors the Arabic press for the U.S. forces in Diyala and lives in the flash-point town of Muqdadiyah told The Washington Times that the Badr Brigade has a high profile in his hometown and has begun to target the Sunni-aligned Iraqi Islamic Party. "On Shi'ite holy days, [members of the Badr Brigade] walk in the streets and protect the processions of Shi'ite pilgrims," the translator said.
The translator pointed to the assassination of a prominent Sunni sheik who belonged to the Iraqi Islamic Party as proof that sectarianism is on the rise in Diyala.
"They began targeting the Islamic Party, which is rumored to receive funding from Saudi Arabia," he said. "There is a hidden agenda to destabilize Iraq."
"There is no conclusive proof that [Iranians] are sponsoring a proxy conflict," said a high-ranking U.S. Army official involved in researching the backgrounds of Diyala's top politicians. "Right now, we're trying to figure out tribal backgrounds and what they were doing before [the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq.]
"There are plenty of previous relationships that allow you to see why the different leaders have this fear of Iran," the official said.
With international pressure on Iran mounting after its announcement that it had produced enriched uranium, Tehran could deflect the attention by following through on hints that it will turn up the heat for the United States in Iraq.
Speaking to The Times last year, a former deputy foreign minister of Iran said it is "neither in Iran's interest to have a stable Iraq, nor do we want a fragmented Iraq. Ambiguity is the cornerstone of the policy."