BAGHDAD — Newly released diplomatic cables show that as part of its drive to counter Iranian influence in Iraq, the U.S. military targeted two senior Iranian intelligence officials in a raid in northern Iraq in 2007.When the men escaped to Iran and sought to return as diplomats, the U.S. military blocked their return by threatening to target them again.
But U.S. officials also cautioned that Iran's role "should not be overestimated," according to the cables. Iraq and Iran disagreed on a host of sensitive issues such as oil production, access to water and border areas, and some prominent Iraqi government officials were worried about being perceived as Iranian "lackeys," the cables showed.
Taken together, the cables reveal a more nuanced U.S. view of Iranian influence in Iraq, even as recent political developments in Baghdad appear to have tilted in Tehran's favor. The reappointment of Nouri al Maliki, the Shiite incumbent, as prime minister last week built on the support of Muqtada al-Sadr, the Iranian-backed cleric, in what's widely been described as a setback for the United States.
The cables, among those released Sunday by the Wikileaks website, show that Maliki's government cooperated with the United States in some efforts to undercut Iran. As recently as April 2009, Iraq allowed the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad to vet Iranians applying for diplomatic visas, with U.S. officials determining that "about 20 percent" had possible ties to Iranian intelligence or security services.
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Two cables from late 2009 described the limits of Iranian sway over its neighbor, with one saying that its "greatest political roadblock" for Iran was differences between Iranian religious leaders and Iraq's preeminent Shiite spiritual leader, Grand Ayatollah Ali al Sistani. In the March 2010 parliamentary polls, Sistani's call for an open-list ballot — allowing voters to select individual candidates — won out over Tehran's preference for a closed list, which would have favored established parties, the cable said.
The election results split the Shiite parties, although Sadr's followers and others have since come together to back Maliki after months of negotiations.
"Our objective in Iraq should be less about countering all things Iranian, and more about developing viable alternatives and approaches that gradually alter the (Iraqi government's) political, economic, and social worldview," said a Nov. 13, 2009, cable, signed by Gary A. Grappo, who at the time was the minister counselor for political affairs at the U.S. Embassy.
The cable also said that Iran spent between $100 million and $200 million annually on funding competing Shiite, Sunni and Kurdish political groups. About $70 million of that went to two Shiite groups, the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq and the Badr Organization.
On April 24, 2009, U.S. officials reported that Iraq showed "increasing willingness" to push back against the Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps' Quds Force, an elite paramilitary and espionage organization whose commander, Brig. Gen. Qassem Suleimani, has been Tehran's point man in Iraq since 2003.
Then-deputy U.S. chief of mission in Baghdad, Patricia Butenis, wrote that a January 2007 U.S. military raid in the northern Iraqi city of Erbil had targeted Abbas Hoseyni and Hormat Faruqi, two Quds Force officers, who escaped and fled to Iran. Iran then submitted diplomatic visa applications for the two men, but U.S. officials "convinced the (Iraqi government) not to approve these applications, making it clear that if they returned to Iraq, they would be targeted by Coalition Forces."
Butenis's cable also revealed that, since 2008, the U.S. Embassy had screened the names of Iranians applying for diplomatic visas to Iraq. In January 2009, the Iraqi foreign ministry gave U.S. officials a list of 35 Iranian diplomats already in Iraq; U.S. officials found that eight were tied to Iranian intelligence organizations.
Aaron Snipe, a spokesman for the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad, declined to comment on the cable or whether the vetting process was ongoing.
Brian Burton, a fellow at the Center for a New American Security in Washington, said the cables reflected the reality that Iran and Iraq have historic economic, political and cultural ties that the U.S. will never be able to "zero out."
"The focus should be on mitigating the most harmful elements of Iranian influence, such as attempting to manipulate Iraqi internal affairs or providing assistance to anti-government insurgents, and on fostering deeper relationships between Iraq and the other countries of the region so that Iraq doesn't have to rely on Iran as a sole source of support," he said.
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