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US Willing to Talk with Iran on Iraq

The White House said today that the United States is willing to talk with Iran about Iraq, but will not allow any such talks to spill over into Iran’s nuclear confrontation with the West. US Ambassador to Iraq Zalmay Khalilzad, an American of Afghani birth, will most likely be the point man in any such talks.

White House spokesman Scott McClellan said that “this is a very narrow mandate dealing specifically with issues relating to Iraq,” and will not be allowed to transition into any nuclear discussions in parallel with IAEA and UN Security Council efforts.

The talks were originally called for yesterday by SCIRI leader Abdul Aziz Al Hakim. The Iraqi SCIRI has long had deep Iranian influence and support. For a quick look at it’s history, see the Middle East Intelligence Bulletin’s Dossier: The Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (October 2003)

SCIRI was not a political success during the reign of Saddam Hussein. The Baathist regime’s security apparatus was effective in containing its influence inside the country. Moreover, SCIRI’s association with Iran damaged its credibility among non-Shiites in Iraq and undermined its legitimacy within the Shiite community. Charges that SCIRI is little more than an Iranian quisling are misleading, however - the Supreme Council and the Islamic Republic developed a strong relationship based on mutual influence. Many SCIRI leaders are of Iranian origin and some became so influential within the Islamic Republic that they assumed official positions in its government. Ayatollah Mahmoud Shahroudi, who briefly preceded Hakim as chairman of SCIRI , is now the head of Iran’s judiciary.

Under the tutelage of Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC), SCIRI established a military wing in 1983, called the Badr Brigade. This force quickly grew into a full-fledged corps and joined regular IRGC forces on the front lines during the Iran-Iraq war. The relationship with the IRCG has persisted and deepened over the past two decades. The main Badr Corps training center, located just west of the Vahdati air force base in Dezful, and most of its other facilities in Western Iran and Tehran are IRGC property. The Badr Corps is believed to have between 10,000-15,000 fighters, though only around 3,000 are professionally trained (many of these being Iraqi army defectors and former POWs).

The United States and Britain have long accused Iran of direct armed involvement in Iraq, including but not limited to Iranian IEDs in Iraq, thousands of the Iranian Qods Force infiltrating southern Iraq. The latter is supported by the words of a recent Iranian defector and former IRGC officer.

“The scale and breadth of Qods Force operations in Iraq are far beyond what we did even during the war with Saddam”, the officer said, referring to the IRGC’s extensive activities in Iraq during the eight-year Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s. “Vast areas of Iraq are under the virtual control of the Qods Force through its Iraqi surrogates. It uses a vast array of charities, companies and other fronts to conduct its activities across Iraq”.

“We would send our officers into Iraq to operate for months under the cover of a construction company”, he said. “Kawthar Company operated in Najaf last year to carry out construction work in the area around Imam Ali Shrine, but it was in fact a front company for the Qods Force. Qods officers, disguised as company employees, established contacts with Iraqi operatives and organised underground cells in southern Iraq”.

All things considered, if the United States is going to engage in any direct talks with the Iranians, that Dr. Zalmay Khalilzad will be at the epicenter is very reassuring. American interests with regards to Iraq, Iran and Afghanistan could lie in no more capable hands. Any other point man would be cause for concern.