Fourteen American soldiers were killed in Iraq last month, the highest monthly total since 2008. The rise in attacks has caused Defense Secretary Panetta to bluntly warn Iran that the U.S. will do what is necessary to defend its soldiers. Iran is escalating its proxy wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and a new wave of violence should be expected if Iraq announces U.S. soldiers will stay past this year.
The Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps has provided the radical Shiite militias in Iraq with new advanced weapons to target U.S. soldiers. The Kataib Hezbollah, for example, has been using improvised rocket-assisted munitions traced back to Iran. The spokesman for the U.S. military in Iraq, Major General Jeffrey Buchanan, says the group “is a creation by the IRGC Qods Force.”
“We get the fingerprints off of a certain cache or a certain rocket that we can tie biometrically to an individual who lives in Iran, he’s a top leader of Kataib Hezbollah, he lives in Iran, he is trained by the Qods Force. All of that together is a very compelling set of evidence,” he said.
Two other Iranian-backed groups, the Promised Day Brigade and Asaib Ahl al-Haq, also have been taking part in the killing of American soldiers in Iraq. Secretary of Defense Panetta warned Iran when he visited Iraq that the U.S. would not take the attacks lying down. “In June we lost a hell of a lot of Americans as a result of those attacks,” he said. He said that the Pentagon under his command will “pressure” Iran “because, very frankly, they need to know that our first responsibility is to protect those that are defending our country.”
Panetta didn’t offer specifics, but said that he would press Iraq to crack down on the militias and “do what we have to do unilaterally, to be able to go after those threats as well, and we’re doing that.” The top U.S. military commander in Iraq, General Lloyd Austin, also said a response is being prepared. “I think what the secretary was pointing to was we’ll do what’s necessary to protect ourselves and that could include a host of things…so we’ll just leave it at that,” he stated.
The proxy war in Iraq is going to become deadlier as Iran tries to make U.S. forces leave by the end of the year, as originally agreed upon by the Bush Administration and the Iraqi government. The Iraqis are almost certain to ask for an extension of the U.S. military presence. Reports indicate that the U.S. is willing to keep 8,500 to 10,000 troops in Iraq, down from 46,000.
The Promised Day Brigade, a group that splintered from the Iranian-backed Mehdi Army led by Moqtada al-Sadr, has claimed responsibility for 10 mortar and rocket attacks on U.S. forces. Al-Sadr went to Iran when the surge began, and started studying to achieve the ranking of a Grand Ayatollah. This is an attempt elevate his religious credibility, possibly in a challenge to Iraq’s Grand Ayatollah al-Sistani. Al-Sadr and his forces are gearing up to renew their fight against the U.S. in Iraq.
In April, al-Sadr said that his forces will “escalate military resistance” if U.S. forces do not withdraw from Iraq by the end of 2011. One of his top aides warned, “We are all time bombs and detonators at the hands of Moqtada al-Sadr.” A spokesman said that the Mehdi Army will end its ceasefire, as well as stage protests. On his website, a supporter said that he would become “martyred” if al-Sadr gives the order, and no civilians or public property would be targeted. Al-Sadr responded by saying, “Thank you…May God preserve you and watch over you.”
Iran is also becoming more involved in Afghanistan. It has provided the Taliban with rockets with twice the range of what they had before. In February, the British military caught four dozen 122-milimeter rockets on their way to the Taliban with a range of about 13 miles. The Iranian regime is also training Taliban fighters in how to use surface-to-air missiles. Taliban captives have confirmed that they are being trained in Iran, where they are instructed in how to attack convoys, use improvised explosive devices and attack military posts and bases. One Taliban commander explained, “Our religions and our histories are different but our target is the same. We both want to kill Americans.”
Iran is playing both sides in Afghanistan, and is influencing the Karzai government. Associates of Karzai say his inner circle is pushing him to move towards Iran as the U.S. withdraws its forces. These advisors belong to Hizb-i-Islami, a group led by Gulbuddin Hekmatyar, who has long served as a proxy for Iran. These aides are said to limiting the president’s access to outside points of view. President Karzai has admitted that his office gets “bags of money” from Iran.
It is clear that Iran’s interference is why Iraq and Afghanistan continue to be unstable. The outcome of these wars largely depends upon Iran’s success in subverting the region. Our soldiers deserve to be protected, and Iran’s killing of them must not go unanswered.