Wednesday, July 07, 2004

The Turn of the Card

Reader DL links to an article in the Telegraph which describes positional jockeying on the Iraq-Iran border. The article suggests that General Ricardo Sanchez wanted to respond agressively to an Iranian incursion but the British preferred to finesse the problem.

America's military commander in Iraq ordered British troops to prepare a full-scale ground offensive against Iranian forces that had crossed the border and grabbed disputed territory, a senior officer has disclosed.  An attack would almost certainly have provoked open conflict with Iran. But the British chose instead to resolve the matter through diplomatic channels.

The incident was disclosed by a senior British officer at a conference in London last week and is reported in today's edition of Defence Analysis. The identity of the officer is not given. "Some Iranian border and observation posts were re-positioned over the border, broadly a kilometre into Iraq," a Ministry of Defence spokesman said.  The incident began last July when Revolutionary Guards pushed about a kilometre into Iraq to the north and east of Basra in an apparent attempt to reoccupy territory which they claimed belonged to Iran.

The Iraqi blogger Omar reports that the manuevering has continued even after the American handover of sovereignty to Iraq with the British still counseling restraint.

An Iraqi military check point that is situated at the western bank of Shat El Arab north to the city of Faw at the Iraqi-Iranian border named Shehan was subjected to Iranian fire on Friday. The same thing happened to some Iraqi army patrols between Gazeel and Hadida north to Basra. Colonel Dhafir Sabah Al Timemi mentioned that this was the 4th time the Iranians have opened fire on Shehan check point during the last week in addition to several other aggressions along the line from the north of Basra down to Al Shalamja.

Colonel Timemi said also that Iraqi border guards have captured 83 Iranians who were trying to cross Iraqi-Iranian borders illegally. He said that these Iranians were detained in Al Shalamcha border check point, interrogated and then were handed over to the Iranian side. The Colonel who’s the Iraqi border guards chief in Basra said that the Iraqi side showed discipline and did not respond to the Iranian aggression in the same manner. He mentioned that he was under pressure from the British forces in Basra to respond similarly but he refused saying that this was a “purely Iraqi-Iranian issue” and that there’s no place for any interference from the coalition forces operating in Iraq.

Recently the British Defense Minister, Geoffrey Hoon, alleged that Iran had hijacked British smallcraft with eight personnel across the border in late June, 2004. "Eight British servicemen seized by Iran last week were forcibly escorted into Iranian territorial waters before they were detained, Geoff Hoon, the defence secretary, told MPs last night." Again the response was muted.

The incident led to three days of frantic diplomatic activity and conflicting signals from Tehran, with the Iranian foreign minister, Kamal Kharrazi, making reassuring comments as Revolutionary Guards paraded the blindfolded men on television. It was assumed the men had strayed into Iranian waters on their way to Basra to deliver the patrol boats to the new Iraqi river police. But Mr Hoon told MPs in a written statement: "In a recent debriefing the crews have said that they were operating inside the Iraqi border and were forcibly escorted into Iranian territorial waters.

STRATFOR thinks the Iranians are playing deadly games. In their geopolitical diary of July 6, 2004 they offered the opinion that the 2 Iranians captured in planting boms in a predominantly Shi'ite (!) area of eastern Baghdad were probably on a mission to compel the new Iraqi government and its main ally, the United States, into recognize Teheran as a force to reckon with, the kingmaker of the region. The Washington Times reports that publicly at least, Iraq is not amused. If game it is, then Iraq has called and raised.

The new Iraqi government will publish evidence this week linking foreign powers, including Iran and Syria, to the Muslim extremists and loyalists of ousted dictator Saddam Hussein who are behind the insurgency in Iraq. Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari said the interim government had gathered intelligence detailing the support provided to insurgent groups by some neighboring nations.  Although he did not name the countries, senior Iraqi officials indicated that Iran and Syria were the worst offenders. The accusation that governments in Tehran and Damascus have been aiding the insurgents could create an immediate diplomatic crisis for the Baghdad administration that assumed power last week.

Insurgents have benefited from financial support, logistical assistance and training from neighboring government agencies, Mr. Zebari said. Baghdad also thinks that up to 10,000 foreign spies and undercover agents have infiltrated the country since the war last year. He even indicated that Baghdad might not oppose attacks by American troops based in Iraq on neighboring states if those states are backing the insurgents. "Since we started to look at the security situation, we have seen how foreign governments have been helping terrorists," Mr. Zebari said.

Perhaps it's a bluff. Neither Baghdad, London or Teheran will know actually know what hands they actually hold until the US presidential elections are over in November. Though the cards have been dealt they still lie face down on the table.