Politics & Policy

It’s the Terrorism, Stupid

Fancy that…Iranian fighters in Iraq.

This in from al-Reuters:

Iraqi and U.S. troops battled Shi’ite militiamen in a village northeast of Baghdad on Thursday…Iraqi security officials said IRANIAN FIGHTERS HAD BEEN CAPTURED IN THE FIGHTING (emphasis added)…The U.S. military had no immediate comment.

In recent days there have been several stories further documenting the Iranian role in the terror war in Iraq, especially in the south, where Tehran has been working assiduously for several years to create a regional Islamic republic. So the al-Reuters report should not be a surprise.

But it gives us the opportunity to reflect on three serious questions, none of which has been sufficiently integrated into our national debate on the war:

‐Who’s an Iraqi?

‐Who’s a Shiite?

‐What’s the Iranian threat, anyway?

And then a short riff on the incredible silence of the White House on life and death in Iraq.

Who’s An Iraqi?

Al-Reuters speaks of “Iranian fighters” mixed in with “Shi’ite militiamen.” But lots of Shiite militiamen entered Iraq from Iran around the time of Operation Iraqi Freedom, and many of those had originally fled Iraq in the early 1980s to join Iranian forces in the war against Saddam. We’re talking big numbers here. Millions of Iraqi Shiites went to Iran, and tens of thousands of them (and, later, their children) were trained by the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps. They are ideal for infiltration — into Shiite or Sunni militias — since they speak Arabic with an Iraqi accent.

I have been saying for years now that those who have been insisting that the “insurrection” is primarily an internal, Iraqi phenomenon, have missed this basic analytical conundrum: are those people Iraqis or Iranians? Should we call them “Iranian agents” (or as al-Reuters prefers, “Iranian fighters”)? Or should we call them Iraqis who spent time in Iran? Who are they?

The important thing is that they are working for Iran; their ultimate national allegiance is irrelevant in terms of understanding the nature of the terror war. They respond to the terror masters in Tehran.

What seems to be happening is that the Iraqis are not playing along with the American intelligence game of blaming “Baathists” for most of the terrorism. The Iraqis see Iranians and Iranian agents all over their country, and they don’t like it. They have been joined by British intelligence and military officers, who know who’s killing their men in and around Basra, and have been leaking like crazy to the British press, from the Telegraph to the Guardian. You could publish a substantial pamphlet of press clippings on this theme.

Who’s a Shiite?

The single greatest distortion of reality in the war is that old chestnut about the profound hatred and total incompatibility between Sunnis and Shiites. The truth is that Sunnis and Shiites happily cooperate when it comes to killing Americans, Europeans, Jews, Christians, Suffis, Bahais, and anyone else who can be defined as an infidel and/or crusader. This has been going on for a very long time. In the early Seventies, for example, the (Shiite) Revolutionary Guards were trained in Lebanon by the (Sunni) Fatah of Yasser Arafat.

Obsessed by this great distortion, our analysts have lost sight of the profound internal war under way within Shiite Islam, the two contending forces being the Najaf (Iraqi, traditional) and the Qom (Iranian, heretical, theocratic) versions. Tehran fears ideological enemies inspired either by democracy or by Ayatollah Sistani’s (Najaf) view of the world, which is that civil society should be governed by politicians, not mullahs.

Thus it is a mistake to assume–as it is so often–that Shiites in Iraq are automatically pro-Iranian. No matter how many times smart people such as Reuel Gerecht detail the intra-Shiite civil war, it just goes in one ear and out the other of the intelligence community and the policymakers.


The Iranian threat is both religious and murderous. Yes, they want to spread their doctrine, they do indeed want to create (Qom-version) Islamic republics all over the world, but that can come later. The main mission is to drive us out of the Middle East, above all from their eastern (Afghanistan) and western (Iraq) borders. The prime instrument for this mission is terrorism, and they do not care at all about the ethos of the terrorists. Indeed, as I reported some months back, Supreme Leader Ali Khamenei told his closest advisers late last year that Iran now controlled all the major terror groups, religious or Marxist, Sunni or Shiite.

We are wrongly focused on the Iranian nuclear threat, which is obviously worth worrying about, but this excessively narrow focus has distracted us from the main threat, which is terrorism. The mullahs are not going to nuke our fighters in Iraq; they are going to kill as many as they can on the ground with IEDs, suicide terrorists, and assassins. And we have given them a free hand in this murderous campaign instead of unleashing political war against them in their own country. We hear lots of talk from the president and the secretary of state, but there is no sign of the sort of aggressive support we should be giving to the forces of freedom inside Iran.


Al-Reuters blandly notes that there is as yet no comment from the American military about the arrests of the “Iranian fighters.” Why is that? It reminds me of the eloquent silence from the Intelligence Community about the discovery of hundreds of WMDs in Iraq, which is an ongoing process. In both cases there is a policy explanation for the silence: confirmation of such facts would demand that we change the context of our policy debate. There are indeed WMDs, and there are likely many others. The intelligence services of half the world were NOT wrong in their assessment of Saddam, and you cannot diss the American enterprise by chanting “Bush lied.” And, most importantly — to finish with a flourish from al-Reuters — we are involved in a regional war that cannot be won by playing defense in Iraq alone.

Faster, please

Michael Ledeen, an NRO contributing editor, is most recently the author of The War Against the Terror Masters. He is resident scholar in the Freedom Chair at the American Enterprise Institute.

Michael LedeenMichael Ledeen is an American historian, philosopher, foreign-policy analyst, and writer. He is a former consultant to the National Security Council, the Department of State, and the Department of Defense. ...


The Latest