The Iraqi official in charge of a commission that blocked more than 300 politicians from running in next month’s elections is working closely with Iran’s Quds Force, prompting the top U.S. general in Iraq to voice concerns about Tehran’s meddling in Iraq’s fragile democracy.
Gen. Raymond T. Odierno, in a speech, accused Ali Faisal al-Lami, the executive director of the Accountability and Justice Commission along with Ahmad Chalabi, the panel’s chairman, of being “clearly influenced by Iran.”
Gen. Odierno said both men, according to intelligence reports, were in close contact with Abu-Mahdi al-Muhandis, the top Iraqi adviser to Iran’s Quds Force commander. The Quds Force comprises Iran’s unconventional military units, which have orchestrated anti-U.S. paramilitary and political operations in Iraq.
In July, the Treasury Department issued a notice to designate Mr. al-Muhandis as an insurgent leader, saying he “facilitated the entry of trucks — containing mortars, Katyusha rockets, [explosively formed penetrators] and other explosive devices — from Iran to Iraq that were then delivered to JAM Special Groups in Sadr City, Baghdad.”
U.S. officials in the past have quietly criticized the decisions of the Accountability and Justice Commission to disqualify a little more than 350 candidates from the election based on suspected ties to Saddam Hussein’s Ba’ath Party, but Gen. Odierno’s remarks represent a rhetorical escalation.
Mr. al-Lami, Gen. Odierno said, “has been involved in very nefarious activities in Iraq for some time. It is disappointing that someone like him is put in charge of the de-Ba’athification commission.”
The Washington Times reported in August that Mr. al-Lami was arrested in 2008 on suspicion that he was a liaison for Mr. Chalabi with an Iranian-backed militia group in Iraq known as the League of the Righteous.
Gen. Odierno said intelligence reports suggested that Mr. al-Lami had planned an attack on U.S. and Iraqi officials in Sadr City. Mr. al-Lami said he was tortured in a special prison run by foreign contractors and that he was innocent of the charges against him.
“He was released in August 2009. We did not have the prosecutorial evidence in order to bring him in front of a court of law. All we had was intelligence on this,” Gen. Odierno said.
Francis Brooke, the Washington adviser to Mr. al-Lami’s patron, Mr. Chalabi, said Gen. Odierno showed a “profound lack of understanding of Iraqi politics.”
Mr. Brooke added, “Every senior Iraqi politician, particularly the Kurdish and Shi’ite parties, has diplomatic relations with Iran and concerning Ali Faisal al-Lami, Gen. Odierno acknowledges that he had no evidence to demonstrate this charge. The Iraqi National Congress and the Iraqi parliament has complete confidence in Ali Faisal al-Lami’s management of the Accountability and Justice Commission.”
Marisa Cochrane Sullivan, the research manager at the Washington-based Institute for the Study of War, said Gen. Odierno’s remarks were significant.
“The revelation that Chalabi and al-Lami had several recent meetings with Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, a close aide of Quds Force commander Qassem Soleimani, is further evidence of what has long been suspected — that Iran is a driving force behind the decision to ban the candidates from the election,” she said.
Gen. David H. Petraeus, commander of the U.S. Central Command, has said Mr. Soleimani told him personally in 2008 that he set Iran’s foreign policy for Iraq, Lebanon and Gaza.
Also at the event Tuesday, Gen. Odierno said he would re-evaluate the pace of troop reductions in Iraq within 60 days after the March 7 elections in Iraq.
The Army announced that troop levels Tuesday fell below 100,000 for the first time since the 2003 Iraq invasion. There are now 98,000 troops on the ground in Iraq.
President Obama has ordered all but 50,000 troops to leave Iraq by Aug. 31, with the remainder pulling out by the end of next year under an Iraqi-American security agreement.