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Iraq's Iranian Connection

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By David Ignatius
Tuesday, August 25, 2009

As security deteriorates in Baghdad, there's a new cause for worry: The head of the U.S.-trained Iraqi National Intelligence Service (INIS) has quit in a long-running quarrel with Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki -- depriving that country of a key leader in the fight against sectarian terrorism.

Gen. Mohammed Shahwani, the head of Iraqi intelligence since 2004, resigned this month because of what he viewed as Maliki's attempts to undermine his service and allow Iranian spies to operate freely. The CIA, which has worked closely with Shahwani since he went into exile in the 1990s and has spent hundreds of millions of dollars training the INIS, was apparently caught by surprise by his departure.

The chaotic conditions in Iraq that triggered Shahwani's resignation are illustrated by several recent events -- each of which suggests that without the backstop of U.S. support, Iraqi authorities are now desperately vulnerable to pressure, especially from neighboring Iran.

An early warning was the brazen July 28 robbery of the state-run Rafidain Bank in central Baghdad, apparently by members of an Iraqi security force. Gunmen broke into the bank and stole about 5.6 billion Iraqi dinars, or roughly $5 million. After a battle that left eight dead, the robbers fled to a newspaper run by Adel Abdul Mahdi, one of the country's vice presidents.

Abdul Mahdi, once an American favorite, has admitted that one of the robbers was a member of his security detail but denied personal involvement, according to Iraqi news reports. Some of the money has been recovered, but the rest is believed to be in Iran, along with some members of the robbery team.

A second concern for Shahwani has been threats against his service's roughly 6,000 members. Maliki's government has issued arrest warrants against 180 Iraqi intelligence officers for alleged crimes that, according to Shahwani's camp, are really political reprisals for doing their jobs. Since the INIS was formally created in 2004, 290 of its officers have been killed, many targeted by Iranian intelligence operatives.

With Shahwani's resignation, the intelligence service is commanded by Gen. Zuheir Fadel, a former pilot in Saddam Hussein's air force. But some of Fadel's key officers are said to be fleeing for safety in Jordan, Egypt and Syria -- fearing that they will be targets of Iranian hit teams if they remain in Iraq.

The breakdown of order in Iraq was most dramatic in the truck bombings on Aug. 19 that targeted the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and other agencies, and left more than 100 dead and 500 wounded. Here, again, there is evidence that government security forces may have aided the terrorists.

"I don't rule out that there was collaboration by the security forces," Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari said after the bombings. "We have to face the truth. There has been an obvious deterioration in the security situation in the past two months."

Who's to blame for the carnage? In today's Iraq, that's open to sectarian conspiracy theories. Maliki's Shiite-led government last weekend broadcast the alleged confession of a Sunni Baathist named Wisam Ali Khazim Ibrahim, who said the truck-bombing plot had been hatched in Syria and that he had paid security guards $10,000 to pass through checkpoints.

But forensic evidence points to a possible Iranian role, according to an Iraqi intelligence source who is close to Shahwani. He said that signatures of the C-4 explosive residues that have been found at the bomb sites are similar to those of Iranian-made explosives that have been captured in Kut, Nasiriyah, Basra and other Iraqi cities since 2006.

Iran's links with Maliki are so close, said this Iraqi intelligence source, that the prime minister uses an Iranian jet with an Iranian crew for his official travel. The Iranians are said to have sent Maliki an offer to help his Dawa Party win at least 49 seats in January's parliamentary elections if Maliki will make changes in his government that Iran wants.

As security unravels in Iraq, U.S. forces there are mostly bystanders. Even in the areas where al-Qaeda operatives remain potent, such as Mosul, the Americans have little control. Sunni terrorists who are arrested are quickly released by the Iraqis in exchange for bribes of up to $100,000, according to an Iraqi source.

Should the Americans try to restore order? The top Iraqi intelligence source answered sadly that it was probably wiser to "stay out of it and be safe." When pressed about what his country would look like in five years, absent American help, he answered bluntly: "Iraq will be a colony of Iran."

davidignatius@washpost.com


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