By Ernesto Londoño
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, October 13, 2008
BAGHDAD, Oct. 12 -- The commander of U.S. forces in Iraq said Sunday that American intelligence reports suggest Iran has attempted to bribe Iraqi lawmakers in an effort to derail a bilateral agreement that would allow U.S. troops to remain in Iraq after the end of this year.
Gen. Ray Odierno said in an interview that Iran, a Shiite Islamic nation eyed warily by the United States and Sunni Arab countries, is working publicly and covertly to undermine the status-of-forces agreement as officials from Iraq and the United States report nearing a deal that must be ratified by Iraq's parliament.
"Clearly, this is one they're having a full court press on to try to ensure there's never any bilateral agreement between the United States and Iraq," Odierno said. "We know that there are many relationships with people here for many years going back to when Saddam was in charge, and I think they're utilizing those contacts to attempt to influence the outcome of the potential vote in the council of representatives."
Odierno said he had no definitive proof of the bribes, but added that "there are many intelligence reports" that suggest Iranians are "coming in to pay off people to vote against it." The reports have not been made public.
The U.N. resolution that sanctions the presence of U.S. troops in Iraq expires Dec. 31. Failure to reach a deal could hasten the withdrawal of U.S. troops and allow Iran to expand its influence in Iraq, a predominantly Shiite, oil-rich nation at the center of the Middle East.
Efforts to reach Iran's ambassador in Baghdad and the embassy's spokesman on their cellphones Sunday afternoon were unsuccessful. Iranian officials have denied undue interference in Iraqi affairs. They accuse the United States of using Tehran as a scapegoat for what Iranian officials describe as failed American policy in Iraq.
Many Iraqi lawmakers and government officials, including Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, spent time in exile in Iran during Saddam Hussein's rule. They tend to value Iraq's close relationship with its largest neighbor, which is also a key trading partner.
In recent months, Iran has courted potential allies in Iraq's parliament, including Kurds and Sunnis, said Kurdish lawmaker Mahmoud Othman. The Arab Sunni speaker of the Iraqi parliament, Mahmoud al-Mashhadani, recently traveled to Iran on an official visit.
"Iran has been doing this for the last six months," said Othman, a vocal backer of the bilateral agreement, adding that he has not been approached by Iran. "They will try their best to influence anyone they can. They will tell people that this is dangerous, that this is not good for Iraq."
Odierno said Iran's alleged efforts to derail the agreement could backfire.
"I truly believe that Iraqis are nationalists," he said. "They want to choose on their own what's best for their country, and they don't want somebody else to decide what's in their best interest."
Iraqi and U.S. officials have spent months negotiating agreements that would cover the rights and responsibilities of American forces and establish legal authority for their presence after the U.N. mandate expires. Whether American troops will be granted full immunity from prosecution under Iraqi law, or limited immunity that would exclude transgressions that occur off-base, while off duty, has emerged as the most contentious issue. Maliki said reaching an agreement is important. But he faces a loss of political support if he signs off on a deal that is perceived to prolong what many Iraqis see as a U.S. occupation and that appears to give Americans free rein in his country.
Odierno, 53, a tall, stern-looking general who speaks in rapid-fire sentences, took over as the top U.S. military official in Iraq last month, replacing Gen. David H. Petraeus. Petraeus oversaw the deployment of an additional 30,000 troops last year when Iraq was on the brink of civil war. Odierno was Petraeus's deputy during that period.
Odierno has periodically voiced concern about Iranian actions and intentions in Iraq. In January 2007, he said Iran had provided insurgents with rockets and armor-piercing rocket-propelled grenades, an allegation that was challenged but not definitely proven or disproven. He told the New York Times in August 2007 that Iran was "surging support" to Shiite militias, in part to influence a congressional debate on whether to withdraw U.S. troops from Iraq. And he told Pentagon reporters in March that Iran continued to support insurgents, calling it "a long-term threat" and "what I worry about most."
In the interview, Odierno said al-Qaeda in Iraq, a largely homegrown Sunni insurgent group that U.S. officials say is led by non-Iraqis, and Shiite militias that receive training and support from Iran have lost a significant amount of power and influence across the country. But both groups remain dangerous and could make a comeback if Iraqi politicians are unable to resolve differences over key issues, such as control of disputed territories in northern Iraq and distribution of revenue from the country's vast oil reserves.
He said provincial elections scheduled for early next year are likely to test the endurance of the recent security gains.
Violence in Iraq has dipped to a four-year low as Iraqi security forces became stronger, former insurgents took on a security role and were put on the U.S. payroll, and the ferocity of sectarian tensions ebbed. Odierno said much of the recent violence in Iraq appears to be motivated by politics. He mentioned as an example the recent slaying of an Iraqi lawmaker who belonged to the political party of anti-American cleric Moqtada al-Sadr.
"What I worry about most is the assassination of candidates as people try to gain influence," Odierno said. "There will be a lot of political maneuvering to try to consolidate power bases in order to prepare themselves for the national election."
He singled out two potential flash points: In Basra, a port city in southern Iraq where the army clashed with Shiite militias in the spring, Shiite parties are aggressively trying to expand their bases as the election nears. And the outcome of the provincial election in Nineveh province, which includes Mosul, in northern Iraq, could dramatically alter the political landscape of the predominantly Sunni province, which is governed by Kurds. Sunnis boycotted the 2005 election.
"I characterize it as a communal struggle for power," Odierno said. "It's evolutionary. You have a struggle at the local level, the provincial level and the national level about who's going to control Iraq."
The general said al-Qaeda in Iraq, which does not enjoy Iranian backing, has been particularly resilient in Mosul. That, he said, is largely a result of tensions between the city's predominantly Sunni population and its Kurdish leaders. The continued infiltration of the city's police force by extremists has exacerbated the problem, he said.
Special correspondent Qais Mizher contributed to this report.