Karbala: Bush’s Casus Belli?

Posted by Cutler on January 31, 2007
Iran, Iraq, Right Zionists

The Bush administration seems to be escalating its campaign against Iran and may have already found its justification for military engagement.

Start with a January 20, 2006 attack on US forces in the Shiite city of Karbala in southern Iraq.

At the time, Helena Cobban at Just World News emphasized the significance of the attack and feared that the US would try to bury the story:

It seems the US authorities were not eager for the US public (or anyone else) to know the details of the lethally effective raid mounted against US occupation forces in Karbala last Saturday…

[A]ll in all, for the Bushites, it’s an extremely inopportune time for detailed news about an attack like the one in Karbala to get out and be disseminated to a wide US readership.

And yet, they proved unable to suppress the news.

Fear not.  The “Bushites” are now more than eager to disseminate the news.

According to  CNN and an article in the New York Times, the Pentagon is investigating the possibility that Iranians–in cahoots with “rogue” elements of the Mahdi Army–were involved in the Karbala attack.  James Glanz and Mark Mazzetti of the Times reports:

Investigators say they believe that attackers who used American-style uniforms and weapons to infiltrate a secure compound and kill five American soldiers in Karbala on Jan. 20 may have been trained and financed by Iranian agents, according to American and Iraqi officials knowledgeable about the inquiry…

Tying Iran to the deadly attack could be helpful to the Bush administration, which has been engaged in an escalating war of words with Iran…

An Iraqi knowledgeable about the investigation said four suspects had been detained and questioned…

The suspects have also told investigators that “a religious group in Najaf” was involved in the operation, the Iraqi said, in a clear reference to the Mahdi Army, the militia controlled by the breakaway Shiite cleric, Moktada al-Sadr. If that information holds up, it would dovetail with assertions by several Iraqi officials that Iran is financing and training a small number of splinter groups from the Mahdi Army to carry out special operations and assassinations.

“I hear that there are a number of commando and assassination squads that are disconnected and controlled directly by Iran,” the senior Iraqi official said, citing information directly from the prime minister’s office. “They have supplied JAM and others with significant weaponry and training,” he said using shorthand for the group, from its name in Arabic, Jaish al Mahdi.

I don’t mean to be overly skeptical about reporting by James Glanz, although I agree with Juan Cole that his recent report on Iranian influence in Iraq seemed “a little breathless.”

In the report on Iran and the Karbala attack, Glanz and Mazzetti include a seemingly skeptical reference to the ways in which allegations of a link between Iran and the Karbala compound attack could be “helpful” to an administration accustomed to the self-serving public amplification of faulty intelligence.  (Maybe the sober influence of Mazzetti?)

But the article then makes what seems like quite a leap to suggest that mention by suspects of “a religious group in Najaf” was a clear reference to the Mahdi Army.   Note well: there are no “scare quotes” around the phrase clear reference.  This is presented in the authoritative voice of the reporter.  Is this supposed to be “clear” to Glanz and Mazzetti?  Clear to the Bush administration?  Clear to everyone?  Gosh, when I think of religious groups in Najaf my mind wanders over to a whole panoply of groups that appear to be active there.  Juan Cole took a look at religious groups in Najaf and threw up his hands, asking “Who knows?”  I guess James Glanz knows.

In any event, the Karbala-Iran link also provides some useful context for another piece of the “Iran campaign” story.  On Saturday, January 27, 2007 the Washington Post published a report by Dafna Linzer alleging that the Bush administration had authorized the U.S. military to kill or capture Iranian operatives inside Iraq.

The new “kill or capture” program was authorized by President Bush in a meeting of his most senior advisers last fall, along with other measures meant to curtail Iranian influence from Kabul to Beirut…

In Iraq, U.S. troops now have the authority to target any member of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard, as well as officers of its intelligence services believed to be working with Iraqi militias. The policy does not extend to Iranian civilians or diplomats. Though U.S. forces are not known to have used lethal force against any Iranian to date, Bush administration officials have been urging top military commanders to exercise the authority.

The wide-ranging plan has several influential skeptics in the intelligence community, at the State Department and at the Defense Department who said that they worry it could push the growing conflict between Tehran and Washington into the center of a chaotic Iraq war…

Advocates of the new policy — some of whom are in the NSC, the vice president’s office, the Pentagon and the State Department — said that only direct and aggressive efforts can shatter Iran’s growing influence…

The decision to use lethal force against Iranians inside Iraq began taking shape last summer, when Israel was at war with Hezbollah in Lebanon. Officials said a group of senior Bush administration officials who regularly attend the highest-level counterterrorism meetings agreed that the conflict provided an opening to portray Iran as a nuclear-ambitious link between al-Qaeda, Hezbollah and the death squads in Iraq.

Among those involved in the discussions, beginning in August, were deputy national security adviser Elliott Abrams, NSC counterterrorism adviser Juan Zarate, the head of the CIA’s counterterrorism center, representatives from the Pentagon and the vice president’s office, and outgoing State Department counterterrorism chief Henry A. Crumpton.

The Bush administration made no effort to deny the report.  Indeed, Bush seemed to welcome the chance to confirm the Linzer story.

“It makes sense that if somebody’s trying to harm our troops, or stop us from achieving our goal, or killing innocent citizens in Iraq, that we will stop them,” Bush said in response to a question about the program, the details of which were first reported in yesterday’s Washington Post.

At the time of its publication, the whole idea of a “kill or capture” initiative designed to respond to Iranian attempts to “harm our troops” seemed pretty hypothetical.  There was no specific reference, at the time, to any particular Iranian activity and authorization for the initiative was reportedly given in the summer of 2006.

In retrospect, however, the timing of the Linzer story seems linked to the Karbala compound attack.  Bush already had his casus belli when he warned against Iranian activity in Iraq.

Perhaps it is no coincidence, then, that the first obscure mention I’ve found of an Iranian link to the Karbala attack came the day before the Linzer story ran when Bill Roggio–“embedded reporter” to all the big Neo-conservative/ Right Zionist media outlets–appears to have broken the story on his blog, The Fourth Rail.

I sure wish I had better intelligence about Karbala.  I mean, how do we know that the whole city isn’t actually located in the Gulf of Tonkin?

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