The Blame Game

After promising that the Bush administration would publish a document this week detailing the evidence for its charge that Iranians in Iraq are providing arms and advice to Shiite militias to kill American troops, State Department spokesman Sean McCormack suggested Wednesday that no such document would be forthcoming any time soon. Paul Richter of The Los Angeles Times reported that some officials, including Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, had resisted the release of the dossier, because they believed the assertions contained in it would have so little credibility that it would backfire politically. As Richter wrote, "They want to avoid repeating the embarrassment that followed the March 2003 invasion of Iraq, when it became clear that information the administration cited to justify the war was incorrect…"

Indeed, the new campaign hyping Iranian meddling, like the 2002-2003 propaganda campaign leading up to the invasion of Iraq, emphasizes a single, highly emotional theme. Instead of the “mushroom cloud” invoked by Condoleezza Rice in September 2002, the administration now conjures up the image of Iranian agents lurking in Iraq for the purpose of killing Americans. And although the White House has decided against the release of any documentation of these allegations for now, the campaign proceeds apace.

As it did in 2002 and 2003 regarding the Iraqi threat, the Bush administration claims to have “intelligence” to support its central theme of Iranian agents fomenting Shiite violence. But a careful investigation of some specific statements that have been made on the alleged Iranian role in sending weapons to Iraqi Shiite militias reveals a gross misrepresentation of the facts.

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Lieutenant General Raymond Odierno, the second-ranking U.S. commander in Iraq, made the most spectacular claim of Iranian culpability in arming the militias so far when he declared in an interview with USA Today on Wednesday, “We have weapons that we know through serial numbers…that trace back to Iran.” He referred specifically to RPG-29s -- armor-piercing rocket-propelled grenades -- and truck-mounted Katyusha rockets captured in Iraq.

That statement represents a serious leap in logic, because the place in which a weapon was manufactured does not tell us who actually supplied them to Iraqi Shiites. (The United States, for example, has been supplying Iraqi forces with Russian-made RPG-7s.) But in making the claim, Odierno made a major stumble: Iran has never been known to manufacture the RPG-29, so the military could not have captured one with an Iranian serial number. The RPG-29 has always been a Russian-made weapon. The Iranian arms industry has focused on its own version of the Russian-made RPG-7 -- an older and much simpler anti-armor weapon than the RPG-29 -- and it has sought overseas markets for it. But there has never been any evidence of Iran designing and manufacturing any version of the RPG-29 -- probably because it would be too difficult of Iranian arms factories to match the quality of the Russian export.

The Russians sold large quantities of the RPG-29 to Syria in 1999-2000, and last summer Hezbollah used that weapon with surprising effectiveness against Israeli tanks. Israelis captured Iranian-made copies of other Russian anti-tank missile systems in the hands of the Hezbollah. But both the Israeli newspaper Haaretz and the Beirut-based Arabic defense monthly Defense 21 confirmed that the RPG-29s used by Hezbollah were Russian-made weapons obtained via Syria.

Odierno's statement didn't mark the first time that the U.S. military has tried to peddle the story of the Iranian origins of the RPG-29s in Iraq. Last September, General John Abizaid admitted that only a single RPG-29 had actually been found in the country, and he said it was “unclear” how it got into the country, according to Agence France-Presse. Abizaid didn't claim any Iranian serial number, but instead suggested that the mere fact that the weapons had been used by Hezbollah “indicates … an Iranian connection.” In the Bush administration's world, Hezbollah is a “proxy” of Iran and therefore cannot have any policies independent of Iran. In the real world, however, Hezbollah has long been understood by specialists to have its own priorities and policies that may or may not jibe with those of Tehran.

The question of Katyusha rockets in Iraq is more complicated. Both Russian-made Katyushas and Iranian versions of it, with other names, have been used by Palestinian militants and by Hezbollah since the 1980s. Hezbollah has had as many as 13,000 rockets, most of which could be called “Katyushas,” since 2004.

The fact that at least a few hundred Shiite militants loyal to Moqtada al-Sadr have gone to Lebanon at Hezbollah's invitation indicates a strong organizational link between Hezbollah and anti-occupation Shiite militias. This provides the most likely explanation for the Katyushas found in Iraq, regardless of where they are made.

Significantly Odierno did not claim that the anti-armor roadside bombs known as explosively formed projectiles (EFPs), which represent the most lethal armor-piercing technology now being used in Iraq, were manufactured in Iran. Instead, he asserted that the technology itself and “some of the elements to make them are coming out of Iran."

That has been the refrain of the Bush administration and the U.S. command for nearly a year. The Deputy Chief of Staff for intelligence of the Multinational Forces in Iraq, Major General Richard Zahner, gave a press conference last September in which he argued that Iran's culpability in the appearance of EFP technology is proven by the fact that the C-4 explosive used in EFPs in Iraq has the same Iranian batch number as the C-4 found on the Hezbollah ship carrying arms to Palestinian militants that was intercepted by the Israelis in 2003.

Zahner's assertion is contradicted, however, by the most in-depth study of the subject so far -- an article by Michael Knights published in Jane's Intelligence Review late last month. Knights, vice-president and head of analysis for the Olive Group, a private security company based in London, has been following the evolution of EFPs in Iraq for nearly three years.

In the article and in an interview with me, Knights suggested that the evidence does not point to Iran as the primary force behind the use of EFPs in Iraq. “There is no need to see an Iranian policy driving it,” he told me. Knights said it is far more likely that Hezbollah policy drove the phenomenon. He points out that it was Hezbollah, not Iran, that transferred EFP devices and components to Palestinian militants after the second Intifada began in 2000.

The remarkable coincidence of the same batch number of C-4 appearing in the intercepted Hezbollah ship and in southern Iraq indicates that the Shiite militias have been getting supplies not from the Iranians, but from Hezbollah. (If Iran had deliberately shipped the explosive to southern Iraq last year, the batch number would have been different from a batch that was given to Hezbollah years earlier.)

In the article, Knights suggests that the number of Hezbollah specialists helping Iraqi Shiites learn to use the technology “need not have exceeded one or two bomb-makers,” since the numbers of EFPs produced has rarely exceeded 100 per month. That number, he concludes, could have been made in a single modest workshop with one or two technicians.

Knights acknowledges that there is no direct evidence of even such a minimal Hezbollah presence. He infers such a presence from the fact that the technology did not appear in crude experimental form in Shiite areas of southern Iraq during the Sadrist uprising in 2004, but rather as a complex, fully developed technology.

U.S. intelligence has made much of the fact that a Hezbollah manual for making EFPs has been captured in Iraq. Knights notes, however, that the manual was actually found in the hands of Sunni insurgents. Knights says the Sunnis “might also have access to EFP expertise through Palestinian groups.” The Sunnis used EFPs on a number of occasions, but most often have relied on the less powerful “shaped charges” that they appear to make themselves.

Regardless of how the technology was initially picked up by Shiite militants, Knights points out that the trend since early 2005 has been toward the emergence of networks of Shiites who make the EFPs themselves, supply them to Shiite militias, and serve as middlemen in importing both devices and components. The network of middlemen, according to Knights, is not aligned with any particular Shiite group and is typified by the one discovered by British forces in Basra in December 2006. It consisted of members of the Basra Police Intelligence Unit, the Internal Affairs Directorate of the police, and the Major Crimes Unit and was drawn from policemen representing every major Shiite faction in Basra.

Knights' research on EFPs illustrates that the Bush administration campaign to blame Iran for the Shiite use of modern weapons is based not on intelligence but rather, once again, on its own faith-based worldview. The syllogism underlying the anti-Iran campaign is: Hezbollah has been helping Shiites. Hezbollah is an Iranian proxy. Therefore, Iran is arming the Shiites. As Knights cautiously put it in the interview, “It may be that they are taking a data point and blowing it out of proportion.”

Gareth Porter is a historian and national security policy analyst. His most recent book, Perils of Dominance: Imbalance of Power and the Road to War in Vietnam, was published in June 2005.

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