By Jonathan Finer and Ellen Knickmeyer
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, March 24, 2006
BAGHDAD, March 23 -- Iran is publicly professing its support for Iraq's stalemated political process while its military and intelligence services back outlawed militias and insurgent groups, U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad said Thursday.
Iranian agents train and arm Shiite Muslim militias such as the Mahdi Army, linked to one of Iraq's most powerful clerics, Khalilzad said, and also work closely with Sunni Arab-led insurgent forces including Ansar al-Sunna, blamed for dozens of deadly attacks on Iraqi and American soldiers and Shiite civilians.
"Our judgment is that training and supplying, direct or indirect, takes place, and that there is also provision of financial resources to people, to militias, and that there is presence of people associated with Revolutionary Guard and with MOIS," the Afghan-born Khalilzad said, referring to Iran's main military force and its Ministry of Intelligence and Security.
Khalilzad's comments, made in an interview in his spacious office in Baghdad's fortified Green Zone, came as the United States and Iran -- two feuding foreign powers with dominant roles in Iraqi affairs -- have expressed willingness to hold talks aimed at stabilizing the beleaguered country. Iran, which borders Iraq to the east and whose theocratic government retains close ties with Iraq's Shiite political leaders, has repeatedly denied American accusations that it is a force for instability in Iraq. Instead, it has blamed the United States for the unrest.
The calls for dialogue over Iraq coincided with deliberations by the U.N. Security Council, of which the United States is a permanent member, over possible actions against Iran for its controversial nuclear program. Asked if any discussions had begun, Khalilzad said, "There is nothing new on that."
Khalilzad's remarks also coincided with stalled negotiations over the formation of Iraq's next government. Sunni Arab parties, pushing for more prominent ministerial posts from the Shiite religious parties that hold the largest share of the seats in parliament, have accused Iran of complicity in recent attacks on Sunnis by Shiite militias that have pushed the country toward civil war.
"The militias haven't been focused on decisively yet. . . . That will be tough," Khalilzad said. "More Iraqis in Baghdad are dying -- if you look at the recent period of two, three weeks -- from the militia attacks than from the terrorist car bombings."
Khalilzad expressed particular concern over Iran's ties to the Mahdi Army, an armed group loyal to the outspoken Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr that the ambassador said was responsible for many of the recent killings, despite Sadr's public pleas for calm.
Sadr, who was charged by the former U.S. occupation authority with involvement in the killing of a rival religious leader soon after the U.S. invasion three years ago, has recently plunged into politics after waging two armed uprisings against U.S. forces in 2004.
But Khalilzad said the United States has had no face-to-face contact with the cleric, in his early thirties, whose followers hold more than 30 seats in the new parliament. "No, I don't talk to him, because we don't meet with Moqtada Sadr, but I have sent him messages publicly. . . . We engage him whatever way we can," said Khalilzad, who added that he and other embassy officials did meet with Sadr's political allies. "I think that our people advise me against it because there is an indictment against him."
An aide to Sadr, one of the most outspoken critics of the U.S. military presence in Iraq, said Thursday that the cleric would not meet with American officials until foreign troops are withdrawn from Iraq.
With negotiations to form a government deadlocked three months after the Dec. 15 legislative elections and Iraqis growing increasingly impatient, Khalilzad said he was stressing to Iraqi leaders that new authority is needed to quell instability.
"I am the one who's saying, 'The country is bleeding, you need to move,' " he said, adding that recent sessions with political leaders from various sides have brought at least one encouraging sign: The groups are now more willing to directly address each other's concerns without using Americans as intermediaries.
"I have been reduced -- and I am not complaining -- to an observer, which is a good thing," he said, dismissing the widely held belief that he is still the driving force for unity, cajoling rival groups to negotiate. "I think now I say that they are really politically moving toward a self-reliance."
Still, he said, a deep gulf remains between the country's Shiite and Sunni factions.
"Sunnis are concerned about having a say in the decision-making, while the Shia concern is that having a say in the decision-making should not obviate the results of the elections and should not create a situation in which decisions are so difficult to make that nothing happens because everyone needs to speak to everyone before anything is done," he said.
Sunnis and others have called on Shiites to reconsider their choice -- backed by Sadr -- of the transitional prime minister, Ibrahim al-Jafari, to lead the new government. They also want the Shiites to ensure that the country's security ministries are not put in the hands of politicians tied to militias. The Shiite bloc has so far resisted both demands.
Asked if Shiites, who fell short of winning a parliamentary majority, would ever be willing to share enough power to allow a unified government to be formed, Khalilzad pointed to constitutional provisions that require a two-thirds vote for many of the functions of government to be carried out.
The Shiites "have no alternative" but to compromise, he said.