The fighting in Basra was supposed to be a "defining moment" in Iraq. So why are things still so confusing? Consider: The conflict was between Muqtada al-Sadr's Mahdi Army, which has been linked to Iran, and forces loyal to Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, whose government is friendly with Iran. A fragile ceasefire between these parties was brokered by Iran.
A parliamentary delegation from Maliki's own coalition, including a member of the prime minister's Dawa Party, traveled to Iran to enlist the commander of the Qods bridgade of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps in an effort to get Sadr's followers to stand down. "Iran was part of the problem and an effective part of the negotiations," an Iraqi legislator told McClatchy Newspapers. A spokesman for Maliki praised Sadr's "concern for Iraq and Iraqis."
Here is where things begin to get clearer: Iran has a great deal of influence in the new Iraq, both among the insurgents who are killing American troops and the government in Baghdad those troops are dying to help protect. Many of the Shiite leaders who replaced Saddam Hussein cut their teeth in exile in Iran and retain ties to Tehran even now.
These cozy relations were on full display when Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad visited Iraq in March. Ahmadinejad received a more pleasant reception in Baghdad than he did at Columbia University. The U.S.-subsidized Iraqi government rolled out a red carpet to welcome the Great Satan's vocal critic. In an affectionate display, President Jalal Talabani embraced his Iranian counterpart and kissed him on the cheeks four times. An Iraqi military honor guard, presumably trained by American troops, was on hand to salute the most anti-American world leader this side of Hugo Chavez.
The pomp and circumstance were facilitated by the fact that Ahmadinejad's visit required light security, in sharp contrast with the way senior U.S. officials must travel to Baghdad under the cover of darkness. Washington Times columnist Diana West speculated as to why Iraq is more welcoming to Iran's president than the president of the United States: "Iranian-supplied bombs and rockets endanger American presidents, not Iranian ones."
Wrote West, "We are living and dying for a ward-like 'ally' who is happy to cozy up to our worst enemy." And as we dig deeper into intra-Shiite conflicts, allies and enemies can be difficult to distinguish. Syndicated columnist Terence Jeffrey put his finger on the challenge: "[R]ecall that we went into Iraq because all of our intelligence agencies with all of their resources could not accurately determine whether Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction. Now, to get out of Iraq, our soldiers must accurately determine which members of a heretofore murderous, Iranian-armed, Shiite fundamentalist militia can be trusted to make peace and which ones cannot."
Despite Gen. David Petraeus's recent successes, the further removed the Iraq intervention gets from the original casus belli, the more impatient the American people get. That impatience and anger will grow even further if Iran is seen as one of the winners of the Iraq war.
Some counsel a harder line against Iran while others contend we have no choice but to talk to Tehran. But perhaps the first step is a simple realization: It is difficult to drain the swamp when there are alligators all around.
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