Petraeus: Iran, not ISIS, is main threat to Iraq

The former U.S. commander in Iraq says Iran is “ultimately part of the problem, not the solution”

Paul Crompton
Paul Crompton - Al Arabiya News
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Former CIA Director Gen. David Petraeus, who commanded U.S. forces during the 2007-2008 surge in the Iraq war, has said that Iran and the Shiite militias it backs pose “the foremost” strategic threat to Iraq, superseding the threat posed by the Islamic State of Iraq and Syria terror group.

“I would argue that the foremost threat to Iraq’s long-term stability and the broader regional equilibrium is not the Islamic State; rather, it is Shiite militias, many backed by — and some guided by — Iran,” Petraeus told the Washington Post during a recent visit to northern Iraq.

He said while these Shiite militias helped stop ISIS’ advance toward Baghdad, they were responsible for “atrocities” against Sunni civilians and could later emerge to be the dominant power in Iraq outside the government’s control.

“These militia returned to the streets of Iraq in response to a fatwa by Shiite leader Grand Ayatollah Sistani at a moment of extreme danger. And they prevented the Islamic State from continuing its offensive into Baghdad. Nonetheless, they have, in some cases, cleared not only Sunni extremists but also Sunni civilians and committed atrocities against them,” Petraeus said.

“Longer term, Iranian-backed Shiite militia could emerge as the preeminent power in the country, one that is outside the control of the government and instead answerable to Tehran,” he added.

Petraeus said the increasing Iranian influence in Iraq, through Revolutionary Guard Commander Qassem Suleimani, underlines “a very important reality: The current Iranian regime is not our ally in the Middle East.”

Read also: Obama admin gives cover to Iraq Shiite militia abuses: Ex U.S. official

Answering a question about the IRGC commander Suleimani, who reportedly helped build up the Shiite militias which targeted American troops and the U.S. embassy in Baghdad during the surge, Petraeus said: “Yes, ‘Hajji Qassem,’ our old friend. I have several thoughts when I see the pictures of him, but most of those thoughts probably aren't suitable for publication in a family newspaper like yours.

“What I will say is that he is very capable and resourceful individual, a worthy adversary. He has played his hand well. But this is a long game, so let’s see how events transpire.

“It is certainly interesting to see how visible Suleimani has chosen to become in recent months — quite a striking change for a man of the shadows,” Petraeus added.

The U.S. general, who is widely credited with purging al-Qaeda from Iraq’s Sunni areas in 2006, said that despite Iran’s help in the fight against ISIS, Tehran is “ultimately part of the problem, not the solution.

“The more the Iranians are seen to be dominating the region, the more it is going to inflame Sunni radicalism and fuel the rise of groups like the Islamic State. While the U.S. and Iran may have convergent interests in the defeat of Daesh, our interests generally diverge. The Iranian response to the open hand offered by the U.S. has not been encouraging,” he added.

He said: “Iranian power in the Middle East is thus a double problem. It is foremost problematic because it is deeply hostile to us and our friends. But it is also dangerous because, the more it is felt, the more it sets off reactions that are also harmful to our interests — Sunni radicalism and, if we aren't careful, the prospect of nuclear proliferation as well.”

Petraeus added that in the spring of 2008, Suleimani made it clear to him that he was in charge of Iran’s policy regarding Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Gaza and Afghanistan.

The message came through as Iraqi and American-led coalition forces battled Iranian-backed Shiite militias.

“In the midst of the fight, I received word from a very senior Iraqi official that Qassem Suleimani had given him a message for me. When I met with the senior Iraqi, he conveyed the message: ‘General Petraeus, you should be aware that I, Qassem Suleimani, control Iran’s policy for Iraq, Syria, Lebanon, Gaza, and Afghanistan.’ The point was clear: He owned the policy and the region, and I should deal with him. When my Iraqi interlocutor asked what I wanted to convey in return, I told him to tell Suleimani that he could ‘pound sand’.”

Ali Khedery, a former advisor to Petraeus when the latter headed up the U.S. central command in Iraq in 2009 to 2010, told Al Arabiya News late Friday that he “agree[s] completely” with the general’s comments.

With his cryptic comments on Suleimani, Petraeus was alluding to the Iranian commander’s responsibility for leading Shiite militia groups responsible for the “killing and wounding thousands of American coalition soldiers and Iraqi troops and civilians, so it would be natural for him to wish things upon him that would not be appropriate for a newspaper,” said Khedery, who now works as a consultant for international strategic advisory firm Dragoman Partners.

Last week, the White House said that they were consulting the now-retired Petraeus on the fight against ISIS in Iraq.

The former advisor on Iraq told Al Arabiya News last month that previously, the Obama administration was deliberately turning a blind eye to Shiite militias’ abuses in Iraq - but now with fresh evidence from human rights organizations and with Petraeus's testimony, “Obama now has to clarify what his policy is in the wake of the new evidence that… [has] been revealed,” Khedery said on Friday.

David Mack, a former U.S. ambassador and scholar at the Washington-based Middle East Institute think tank, said that the government of Iraqi Prime Minister Haider al-Abadi - aligned in part both politically and ideologically with Iran-backed Shiite militias – must contain control of the situation in order to avoid a long-term “threat to their stability.”

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