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U.S. Commanders Are Concerned About New Iraqi Restrictions on American Troops
Officials agreed to discuss relations with the Iraqi government and military, and Iranian support for the extremists, only on the condition of anonymity because those issues involve security, diplomacy and intelligence.
The three primary groups -- Asaib al-Haq, Khataib Hezbollah and the Promised Day Brigades -- emerged from the "special groups" of the Jaish al-Mahdi (JAM) militia of radical Iraqi Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, which terrorized Baghdad and southern Iraq beginning in 2006. All receive training, funding and direction from Iran's Revolutionary Guard Corps Quds Force.
"One of the things we still have to find out, as we pull out from the cities, is how much effectiveness we're going to have against some of these particular target sets," the military intelligence official said. "That's one of the very sensitive parts of this whole story."
As U.S. forces tried to pursue the alleged leaders of the groups and planned missions against them, their efforts were hindered by the complicated warrant process and other Iraqi delays, officials said.
Last month, U.S. commanders acquiesced to an Iraqi government request to release one of their most high-profile detainees, Laith Khazali. He was arrested in March 2007 with his brother, Qais, who is thought to be the senior operational leader of Asaib al-Haq. The United States thinks they were responsible for the deaths of five American soldiers in Karbala that year.
Maliki has occasionally criticized interference by Shiite Iran's Islamic government in Iraqi affairs. But he has also maintained close ties to Iran and has played down U.S. insistence that Iran is deeply involved, through the Quds Force, in training and controlling the Iraqi Shiite extremists.
U.S. intelligence has seen "no discernible increase in Tehran's support to Shia extremists in recent months," and the attack level is still low compared with previous years, U.S. counterterrorism official said. But senior military commanders maintained that Iran still supports the Shiite militias, and that their attacks now focus almost exclusively on U.S. forces.
After a brief lull, the attacks have continued this month, including a rocket strike on a U.S. base in Basra on Thursday night that killed three soldiers.
The acrimony that has marked the transition period has sowed resentment, according to several U.S. soldiers, who said the confidence expressed by Iraqi leaders does not match their competence.
"Our [Iraqi] partners burn our fuel, drive roads cleared by our Engineers, live in bases built with our money, operate vehicles fixed with our parts, eat food paid for by our contracts, watch our [surveillance] video feeds, serve citizens with our [funds], and benefit from our air cover," Bolger noted in the e-mail.
A spokesman for Bolger would not say whether the U.S. military considers the Iraqi order on July 2 valid. Since it was issued, it has been amended to make a few exemptions. But the guidelines remain far more restrictive than the Americans had hoped, U.S. military officials said.
Brig. Gen. Heidi Brown, the commander overseeing the logistical aspects of the withdrawal, said Iraqi and U.S. commanders have had fruitful discussions in recent days about the issue.