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Gordon Campbell: Iran - The New Buddy of the US?

Gordon Campbell: The Americans find a new buddy: Iran

To date, media coverage of the Iraq war has barely touched on its startling new phase - namely, the convergence of interests between Iran and the US. This odd relationship was played out in last month’s onslaught by US forces and Maliki government troops against the cleric Moqtada al-Sadr in Basra, and it is recurring in the attacks on his Sadr City stronghold in Baghdad.

It is pretty obvious why the US want to take down Moqtada. His forces oppose the US occupation. Also, Iraq is scheduled to hold provincial elections in October in which Moqtada is expected to do well, at the expense of his Shi’ite rival and prime US ally, Abdul Aziz al-Hakim. Even so, it seems odd that just when US politicians are talking troop withdrawals, phasedown or disengagement, US forces on the ground are actually going in deeper – and why? In order to take sides in a bitter inter Shi’ite rivalry, and to shore up a splintered Maliki government whose own authority barely extends beyond the fortified Green Zone.

The pretext for the offensive against Moqtada – that his Mahdi army is an armed militia that must disarm or face the consequences - is a joke. Every other player on the scene ( the Kurds with their peshmerga, Hakim’ with the Badr Brigades etc) operates an armed militia that is not being required to disarm.

Moreover, Moqtada is being attacked even though it was his previous ceasefire that allowed the Bush ‘ surge” to enjoy its much touted successes, As Moqtada obligingly sat on the sidelines, this enabled the US forces and Badr Brigades to go after the Sunni militants. ( This same drive also saw Shi-ite gangs carry out the ethnic cleansing of Sunnis from Baghdad and sent a huge flow of Sunni refugees into Syria, but that’s another story.).

More to the point, the current attack on Moqtada sees Iran and the US virtually working as one. Even while Hillary Clinton talks about scenarios for ‘obliterating’ Iran, the main unfolding story in the Iraq war is the arms length co-operation taking place between Iran and the United States. This became manifest a couple of months ago, in Basra.

And who finally brokered the Basra peace deal between Moqtada on one side and the Maliki /US forces on the other?

Ironically, it was the Iranian brigadier general, who commands the Revolutionary Guards - a person and an organisation on the US list of designated terrorists.

Iran has always had several bets on the table inside Iraq. For decades, Iran has funded the anti-Hussein Shi’ite opposition, including the Daw’a party of current Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, and Hakim’s SCIRI organization that provides its military clout. Since the US invasion, Iran has also ferried support to Moqtada, to aid his opposition to the US colonization.

True, Iran is now denouncing the US actions in Sadr City, but that is token stuff. Effectively, Iran is cutting Moqtada adrift – for now at least - and thereby aligning itself against the main Shi’ite armed resistance to the US occupation. For which it is getting no credit whatsoever on the US campaign trail.

Iran has the long game in mind. It is betting the US will leave sooner rather than later, and muzzling Moqtada - for now - only speeds the day when the US can declare victory and withdraw, thus leaving Iran’s Shi’ite allies to dominate the political landscape, especially within the oil-rich south. Those October elections will be interesting in that respect, to see if Moqtada’s masses still come out to support him.

The chronic danger for Iran? Someone in the Pentagon must have noticed that the main thing the US has accomplished in Iraq has been to vastly expand Iran’s sphere of influence. Inevitable really, once the Shi’ite genie had been let out of the bottle. For now though, Iran needs to tread gently, and not be too provocative. Putting daylight between itself and Moqtada is part of that game.


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