“Last week, when [Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-] Maliki visited the president, one of the people in his entourage is a commander in the Iranian Revolutionary Guard.”

--Newt Gingrich, on CBS’s “Face the Nation,” Dec. 18, 2011

Republican presidential hopeful Newt Gingrich, when he made this comment on “Face the Nation” on Sunday, was referring to Iraqi Transportation Minister Hadi al-Amiri. Gingrich apparently based his comments on an article in The Washington Times—headlined “Ex-Iran Guard commander visits White House with Iraq leader”-- that generated some attention in the blogosphere. One report headlined it this way: “President Welcomes Suspected Terrorist to the White House.”

But this is a simplistic version of a complex story involving U.S. relations with the current government of Iraq. Let’s explore what’s going on here.

The Facts

First of all, there is a long tradition of militants aspiring to become statesmen. Martin McGuinness, a former Irish Republican Army leader, this year ran for president of Ireland. And, as House speaker in 1995, Gingrich hosted a lunch at the capital that include Gerry Adams, the head of Sinn Fein, the political wing of the IRA—at a time when Britain regarded the IRA to be a terror group.

Amiri fits into this mode. He heads the Badr Organization (formerly the Badr Brigades), which in effect was the military arm of the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq. Like many anti-Saddam Hussein organizations opposed to the Baathist regime, SCIRI was based in Iran before the U.S. invasion. The group certainly had links to Iran’s secretive Quds Force, which provided weapons, training and monetary support.

But translating this role into “commander of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps” is a real stretch. The Badr Brigades received some funding from the IRGC, and pockets of the group apparently still exist in Iran, but today it is a relatively independent entity that is an integral part of the Iraqi government. Many of its militants are part of the Iraqi police and military though most experts assume it could be quickly reconstituted into a militia if necessary.

Moreover, after the fall of Hussein, the Americans embraced Badr and its sister organization and assumed they were on America's side—even though few diplomats or military officials had any illusions about Amiri and the human rights abuses his troops committed against Sunnis. A secret diplomatic cable from 2009, released by Wikileaks, suggests Amiri was personally responsible for the deaths of as many as 2,000 people.

“Amiri is widely known to have played a leading role in organizing attacks by the Badr Corps militia (the strongest, most disciplined Shia militia at the time and precursor to the current Badr Organization) against Sunnis during the sectarian violence of 2004-2006. Sources indicate that he may have personally ordered attacks on up to 2,000 Sunnis. One of his preferred methods of killing allegedly involved using a power drill to pierce the skulls of his adversaries.”

But that cable was actually a celebration of Amiri’s apparent evolution into an important moderating force in the Iraqi government—what the cable called an “encouraging indicator of a maturing political dynamic in Iraq.”

U.S. officials have dealt with Amiri for years. Another diplomatic cable released by Wikileaks concerns a 2006 meeting between political officer Robert Ford (now ambassador to Syria) and Amiri, in which Ford urges that his militia be demobilized. The cable, signed by then U.S. ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad, notes that the “fear of the Badr Corps drives some Sunni Arabs to arms” and concludes:

“Al-Amiri is an example of a leader who has not fully digested how to make the transition from being the leader of an insurgent group to being the leader of a mature, evolving democracy. At one level, he understands what needs to be done, but at another level, he seems incapable of understanding how his fighters' defensive actions (and excesses) against Sunni Arab extremists actually spur violence from the broader Sunni Arab community.”

Indeed, both then President George W. Bush and Vice President Dick Cheney met with the leader of SCIRI’s successor organization, the Islamic Supreme Council of Iran, in Washington and in Baghdad.

It could be true that Amiri is basically in the pocket of Iran, but if Gingrich has a complaint about Amiri being in the White House, then his concern should probably start with U.S. policy that began in the Bush administration. (During the CBS interview, he indicated that as early as December 2003 he felt U.S. policy had gone astray.)

It is also worth noting that representatives of the People’s Mujahedeen Organization of Iran peddled the story of Amiri’s visit to reporters in Washington during Maliki’s trip. The People’s Mujahedeen, which is seeking to overturn its designation as a terrorist organization by the State Department, has a stake in undermining the Maliki government as it battles the potential closure of its refugee camp in Iraq’s Diyala province.

The People’s Mujahedeen also includes former FBI director Louis Freeh among its high-profile, well-paid supporters. Freeh was prominently quoted in the Washington Times article as criticizing Amiri’s visit.

The Pinocchio Test

Gingrich needs to be more careful before he tosses out suggestions that President Obama is hosting an Iranian terrorist in the White House. (Even the Washington Times article called Amiri an “ex-commander.”)

Amiri has a checkered history with murky links to Iran, but he currently is a senior Iraqi government official and for many years has been partner in U.S. efforts to build a more democratic Iraq. At this point, this is nothing extraordinary about him being part of an Iraqi government delegation.

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