The military battle to destroy the Baathist regime of Saddam Hussein has virtually ended. Now the political battle for the freedom of the Iraqi people ensues, and it may be over very quickly, to our surprise and shame.
We have a very narrow window in Iraq to win the support of the Shiite community, which constitutes a majority of the Iraqi people. If we do not manage that in the next month or two, the radical Iranian regime will almost certainly succeed in its ambitious and, thus far, brilliantly managed campaign to mobilize the Iraqi Shiites to discredit the Coalition victory, demand an immediate American withdrawal, and insist on “international” — that is, U.N. and European — supervision of the country. That would leave Iran with a free hand in Iraq, strengthen the regime in Tehran to our detriment, and give a second wind to the terror network. Our victory, as the old saying goes, would turn to ashes in our mouths.
Some of our leaders seemed surprised to discover that both Iran and Syria were sending thousands of terrorists into Iraq to attack Coalition forces, but there was no reason for surprise. Both Bashar Assad in Damascus and Ali Khamenei and his fanatical allies in Tehran had publicly announced that America would sink into a Vietnam-like quagmire in Iraq, and the long delay between the end of the Afghan campaign and the onset of the liberation of Iraq enabled the Iranians and Syrians to plan their moves to best assure this outcome. The Syrians have been caught red-handed, opening their border with Iraq to terrorists moving East and weapons and Baathist hierarchs fleeing West. As usual, the Iranians have taken pains to cover their tracks. Even so, there is plenty of reliable information about their operations. In the middle of the war, for example, many Iraqi leaders — reportedly more than a hundred in all — made it by bus across the border to Iran, were escorted onto a commercial aircraft, and were flown to a safe haven in the Sudan.
But the true audacity of Tehran lies in their political moves. The Iranians have infiltrated more than a hundred highly trained Arab mullahs from Qom and other Iranian religious centers into Iraq, especially to Najaf and Karbala, the holy cities of the Shiite faith. They are poisoning the minds of the (largely uneducated) Iraqi mobs with a simple slogan, repeated five times a day in the mosques: “America did it for the Jews and for the oil.” They are also distributing cash to the Iraqis.
Just as they did against the shah, the Iranian Shiite leaders intend to build a mass following, leading to an insurrection against us. Look carefully at the banners carried by the Shiite demonstrators. They are very clean and well produced, with slogans in both Arabic (for the Iraqis) and English (for Western media). That is the Iranian regime at work, one of the most brilliant and patient intelligence organizations in the region. The slogans chanted by the mobs in Baghdad are Iranian slogans, calls for an Islamic state. It may seem fanciful to suggest that our liberation of Iraq could be transformed into a pro-Iranian regime applying sharia law, but after all just last year our negotiators permitted the creation of an Islamic Republic in Afghanistan.
The Iranians will combine this political strategy with terrorist acts and assassinations, as in the case of the very charismatic Ayatollah Khoi in Najaf. He was a real threat to them, because of his personality and his solid pro-Western views. So they killed him, and they are planning to kill others of his ilk, along with as many Coalition soldiers as they can murder. Thousands of Iranian-backed terrorists have been sent to Iraq, from Hezbollah killers to the remnants of al Qaeda, from Islamic Jihadists to top Iranian Revolutionary Guards fighters.
We have not taken suitable precautions against the infiltration of suicide bombers and terrorists. The Associated Press reported on April 19th that — there wasn’t a single U.S. military checkpoint Friday along the length of the 50-mile road from the eastern city of Kut to the (Iranian) border — Iranian border guards roamed freely to the Iraqi side, acting as if they were in charge of the area and quickly asking reporters to leave.
We cannot defeat this strategy militarily without a level of violence against civilians that would redound against us; we have to use their methods to defeat them.
Our best strategy consists of two programs, one defensive and one offensive. The first is to support pro-Western, pro-democracy mullahs in Najaf and Karbala. They have sent a message to me (roughly two dozen of them), offering to help us in exchange for physical protection and money to give as charity to followers. Most Iraqi people do not like the Iranians, but only their own religious leaders can credibly expose the Iranian operation. They will not believe our radio or television broadcasts, or speeches from American generals, but they will listen to their own religious leaders. Similarly, it is next to impossible for us to identify the Iranian-backed terrorists, but the Iraqi Shiites can do it, once they are convinced that their real salvation lies with us. That is why the battle for the minds of the Iraqi Shiites is so crucial.
The second program is to support the anti-regime forces inside Iran. That insane regime is now very frightened, both of us and of their own people. The ayatollahs know that the Iranian people long to be free, and the regime has intensified its repression during the run-up to the war. There are several pro-democracy groups in Iran (student and teacher organizations, trade unions, workers? group, especially in the oil and textile sectors) that can organize an insurrection in Tehran and other major cities. They need money (a fraction of what was squandered in the CIA’s failed program to induce an insurrection in Basra), satellite phones, laptop computers, and the like. At the same time, we should support the pro-American Persian language radio and TV stations in Los Angeles, that are the principal source of information for most educated Iranians.
A thoughtful Turkish general once remarked that the trouble with allying with the United States is that “you never know when the Americans are going to turn around and stab themselves in the back.” We have won a dazzling military battle, but victory in the war against terrorism is suddenly in peril. We can certainly win, but we are up against a desperate enemy with great skill and cunning, and the cynical ruthlessness that comes from an ancient civilization that has survived countless invaders and occupiers over many millennia. We’d better take them seriously.
— Michael Ledeen, an NRO contributing editor, is most recently the author of The War Against the Terror Masters. Ledeen, Resident Scholar in the Freedom Chair at the American Enterprise Institute, can be reached through Benador Associates.