- The Washington Times - Monday, April 7, 2008

The explosion of violence which started in Basra and spread to other cities across Iraq late last month is just the latest reminder of the destructive role that Iran is playing in the region. The violence began when the Iraqi Army attempted to disarm Muqtada al-Sadr’s Mahdi Army, a radical Shi’ite militia with longstanding ties to Tehran. Nearly 500 people died in five days of fighting which began March 25 and spread to Baghdad and other Iraqi cities.

On March 30, Sheik al-Sadr declared a “cease-fire.” Yet intermittent battles have erupted since then between the Iraqi military and police, the Mahdi Army and other Shi’ite militias and criminal gangs loosely affiliated with the militias. Sharon Behn of The Washington Times reported Saturday that militiamen loyal to the Mahdi Army leader are positioning explosives to defend their stronghold in Baghdad’s Sadr City neighborhood in anticipation of a major battle with U.S. and Iraqi government forces.

Bill Roggio, who blogs from Iraq and Afghanistan for the Longwarjournal.org, notes that Iraqi intelligence officials have said that senior Hezbollah military commander Imad Mugniyah, who was slain in Damascus two months ago, helped form the Mahdi Army in April 2003 after the fall of Saddam Hussein; some 300 fighters recruited from Kuwait and Saudi Arabia underwent military training with Hezbollah in Lebanon. In an August 2007 interview with the Independent, a British newspaper, Sheik al-Sadr explained the Mahdi Army’s relationship with Hezbollah this way. “We have formal links with Hezbollah, we do exchange ideas and discuss the situation facing Shi’ites in both countries,” he said. “We copy Hezbollah in the way they fight and their tactics, we teach each other.”

According to U.S. military officials in Iraq, the Quds Force, an elite unit of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), has played an extensive role in funnelling arms to Iraqi Shi’ite militias. Maj. Gen. Kevin Bergner, spokesman for the U.S.-led multinational force in Iraq, on Wednesday called on the Iranian government to “fulfill its pledge to halt the flow of weapons, of training, of funding, and of other resources that the criminal groups are dependent upon here.” Gen. Bergner referred to interrogations last year of Qais Khazali, a Shi’ite radical captured last spring who implicated the Quds force in the killing of American servicemen. Khazali and a Hezbollah operative captured by coalition forces said that the senior leadership of the Quds force were responsible for a January 2007 ambush in Karbala in which five American soldiers were killed. One soldier died in the ambush, carried out by attackers wearing American-style military uniforms. The other four soldiers were kidnapped and killed later.

Khazali “told us in his own words that there was no way that [Iranian] special forces could conduct the attacks that they were conducting without the support of the Iranian Quds force and their network that was training, equipping, funding and assisting special groups in undertaking these criminal activities. We have seen the continued use of Iranian-manufactured and -supplied rockets, mortars and explosively-formed penetrators,” Gen. Bergner added on Wednesday. “And in fact, we have captured individuals who tell us that they have recently been to Iran and been trained by the Quds Force operatives.” In an interview late last month, Sheik al-Sadr reportedly demanded Khazali’s release.

McClatchey Newspapers reported last weekend that the cease-fire was brokered by Iraqi members of parliament who traveled to Iran last week to persuade the commander of the Quds Force, Brig. Gen. Qassem Suleimani, to get Sheik al-Sadr to agree to a halt the fighting. All of this suggests that when it suits Tehran’s purposes, Sheik al-Sadr will see to it that a new round of violence will “spontaneously” occur in Iraq.

Thus far, U.S. military and diplomatic officials have shied away from directly criticizing Sheik al-Sadr’s links with the Iranian government. It will be interesting to see whether Gen. David Petraeus or Ambassador Ryan Crocker, who begin their next round of congressional testimony tomorrow, would be willing to speak on the record about how the Mahdi Army does Tehran’s dirty work in Iraq.