Bloomberg: Shiite militia groups backed by Iran are the greatest long-term threat to Iraq’s stability, according to Army General David Petraeus, the top U.S. commander in Iraq. By Nicholas Johnston and Tony Capaccio
April 9 (Bloomberg) — Shiite militia groups backed by Iran are the greatest long-term threat to Iraq’s stability, according to Army General David Petraeus, the top U.S. commander in Iraq.
The so-called “special groups,” which are funded, trained and armed by Iran, played a “destructive role” in the recent clashes between extremist militias and Iraqi government forces in Basra and Baghdad, Petraeus said.
“Iran has fueled the violence in a particularly damaging way,” he told the House Armed Services Committee today in Washington, his second day of testimony to lawmakers. “Unchecked, the `special groups’ pose the greatest long-term threat to the viability of a democratic Iraq.”
Petraeus, testifying yesterday in the Senate and today in the House, said Iraq is too “fragile” to allow U.S. troop levels to fall below about 140,000 earlier than September.
The general recommended a 45-day period of evaluation after the final brigade from last year’s “surge” of troop reinforcements into Iraq is withdrawn in July. Only after that period should officials begin to consider further withdrawals, he said.
Petraeus said today that troop increases this year, if the security situation in Iraq deteriorates, are “a remote thought” because of progress he has seen with Iraqi security forces, especially an elite special operations brigade.
The U.S. currently has more than 150,000 troops in Iraq. As of today, 4,017 U.S. personnel have died in Iraq since the conflict began in March 2003, and 29,676 Americans have been wounded, according to the Defense Department.
In response to a question today from Committee Chairman Ike Skelton of Missouri, Petraeus said his commanders are reviewing four to five locations in Iraq that could be candidates for U.S. withdrawals after July.
“Over time,” Petraeus said, “I think all of” the brigades will be withdrawn. “The question is at what pace will that take place.”
The U.S. is withdrawing about 21,000 troops deployed last year to quell violence in Iraq, especially in Baghdad.
In testimony yesterday before the Senate Armed Services Committee, Ryan Crocker, the U.S. ambassador to Iraq, criticized Iran for continuing to “undermine the efforts of the Iraqi government to establish a stable, secure state.”
“At the same time, we support constructive relations between Iran and Iraq,” Crocker said. “Iran has a choice to make.”
Of Iran’s 65 million people, about 90 percent are Shiite Muslim. About 60 percent of Iraq’s 27 million people are Shiite, according to U.S. Central Intelligence Agency data.
“Iran has said publicly it will fill any vacuum in Iraq and extremist Shia militias would reassert themselves,” Petraeus said yesterday and again today. “We saw them try in Basra and Baghdad two weeks ago.”
Courting Iraq’s Shiites
Crocker acknowledged yesterday that Iran has a relationship with every Shiite group in Iraq, not just Moqtada al-Sadr and his Mahdi Army, which was the government’s main adversary in the fighting in Basra.
That includes the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council, one of Sadr’s greatest rivals in the struggle for power in Iraq, Crocker told Senator Jack Reed, a Rhode Island Democrat.
“Iran has a dialogue with everyone” in the Shiite community, Crocker said.
Petraeus told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee yesterday that he will provide further details about how closely some Iraqi militias are linked to Iranian groups and Lebanese Hezbollah.
In response to a question about how to counter Iranian influence, Petraeus said much is being learned from detained members of the Iranian-backed special groups. That information soon will be discussed, he said.
“We’ll lay that out, and we’ll lay out the various weapons caches and other finds that we have had that, again, show the very, very clear involvement of Iran in Iraq,” he said.