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Gen. Petraeus Steps Up Accusations Against Iran

ANDREA SEABROOK, host:

From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Andrea Seabrook.

The top U.S. military commander in Iraq ratcheted up the rhetoric about Iran today. General David Petraeus told reporters that Iran's ambassador to Iraq is a member of the elite al-Quds Force of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard. And the repeated charges that Iran is providing advanced weaponry that Iraqi militias are using to attack U.S. troops. Just yesterday, two of those Iranian-backed militias pledged to stop fighting each other.

We called on two people to help us understand these developments. NPR's Anne Garrels in Baghdad and Vali Nasr, a professor of international affairs at Tufts University.

I asked Anne Garrels to lay out General Petraeus' allegations.

ANNE GARRELS: General Petraeus pointed out that the current Iranian ambassador is - and I point this out in the present tense - is a member of the al-Quds group, which the U.S. is said is behind attacks on the United States. Why he said this now is very curious because the U.S. Ambassador Ryan Crocker has been negotiating, or at least talking, with the Iranian ambassador about ways to stabilize the situation.

And I don't think General Petraeus' comments today were probably particularly helpful for that process, and when I tried to sort of delve into why did he make this point, military officers are backed off saying, we're not saying that he was actually involved in importing arms. We're not saying he was a part of it. We just want to lay out the picture of an Iranian involvement.

SEABROOK: Vali Nasr, how do you see the American comments?

Professor VALI NASR (International Affairs, Tufts University): I think it's very clear that Iraq is very rapidly becoming the frontline in an increasingly confrontational relationship between the United States and Iran, that the Iranians, without the doubt, are trying to increase their presence in Iraq and increase the supply of weapons to their clients. Both to confront the U.S. potentially but also they're looking pass the United States, believing that the surge will ultimately collapse and the U.S. is going to leave and they want to have a strong position for when that happens.

The United States on the other hand is deliberately putting its finger on Iran's rule in Iraq. I mean, obviously, the fact that the Iranian ambassador is a member of the revolutionary guards was known to the United States when they began negotiating with them. This is an open secret in Iraq. But it's the fact is that the United States decided to make this an issue at this point in time and General Petraeus has repeatedly pointed the finger at Iran as the source of U.S.'s trouble in Iraq and is the main obstacle to the success of the surge. That is a deliberate U.S. strategy, and I think it's a reflection of the worsening tenure of relations between Washington and Tehran, which doesn't have to do with Iraq alone.

SEABROOK: Anne Garrels, what's going on with this agreement between Moqtada al Sadr and the Shiite political party led by Abdul Aziz al-Hakim?

GARRELS: Well, it come out of the blue yesterday, but I think that both these Shiite - very powerful Shiite groups, are feeling pushed and are losing support on the ground for various reasons and finally realized that they better burry the hatchet. Clearly, Moqtada al Sadr, after a debacle in Karballa at the end of August when his forces, when his name or not, took on Iraqi Security Forces, many of whom belong to Hakim's group, basically, got his clock wiped and a lot of Iraqis were killed in the process. And so he, since then, has declared a ceasefire in order to clean his shop.

Now, I would be really interested to ask Vali Nasr what he thinks is going on because I'm not sure anybody here really does, but Sadr clearly is cornered. And I think Hakim's people feel they're losing support on the ground.

SEABROOK: Vali Nasr, what does it mean that the two Shiite warring factions are coming together here?

Prof. NASR: Well, I think Anne is correct. Both are under pressure to prevent a collapse of southern Iraq into mayhem. These are the two largest political grouping with the largest militia forces. They are trying to fight over turf and over influences in southern Iraq. But also both parties have very close ties to Iran and I think Iran is very motivated right now to keep the lead on the troubles in southern Iraq, and also show the United States and the world that it's capable of establishing order in southern Iraq by essentially brokering a peace between the two.

SEABROOK: But I submit that Iran may well have overplayed its hand. It is not for nothing that Moqtada al Sadr declared a ceasefire for six months, and it is not for nothing that members within the Sadr movement are turning in their own people who are backed by Iran, who were using Iranian weapons against U.S. forces. The U.S. is not just cleaning up these people on their own. They say they are getting tips from within the organization itself.

So the question is, to what degree has, in fact, Iran overplayed its hand?

Prof. NASR: It's a good point, and Moqtada also, as I'm saying, doesn't want to be caught, if you would, in the middle of a larger Iranian-U.S. confrontation as being seen as essentially its stooge of Iran in the middle of this.

Generally, Iraqi Shiites don't want to be caught in the middle of the U.S.-Iran confrontation and they definitely would like this issue to either go away or to try to separate themselves from the Iranian position in Iraq as the U.S. begins to tighten the screws on Iraq.

SEABROOK: Vali Nasr is a professor of international politics at Tufts University. We were also joined by Anne Garrels, NPR's correspondent in Baghdad.

Thank you, both, very much.

Prof. NASR: Thank you and it was…

GARRELS: Thank you.

Prof. NASR: …good talking to you Anne.

GARRELS: And you Vali Nasr. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Anne Garrels