For months, U.S. military officials in Baghdad have put together elaborate briefings with Power Point displays and defused munitions to highlight the questionable activities of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards, specifically the Qods Force branch, in Iraq. These briefings were generally missing one thing: a clear assertion that the Revolutionary Guards, or IRGC, are directly responsible for American deaths. That assertion came in a briefing with Brig. Gen. Kevin Bergner, the U.S. military spokesman, today. Bergner said that the IRGC had helped plan an attack in Karbala last January that killed five American soldiers. He added another twist: the Qods Force have been using Hizbullah operatives as a "proxy" to help train Shia fighters in Iraq and carry out attacks against the Coalition and Iraqi security forces. "They are killing Iraqis," he said. "They are killing Iraqi security forces. In addition to the threat that they are to the Coalition force. So this is a threat for the government of Iraq as much as it is for the Coalition."
The bulk of the information Bergner presented today was pieced together from a March 20 raid in Basra that nabbed three key individuals along with computers and documents. Two of the detainees, Qais Khazali and his brother Laith, had been previously identified. Qais once worked as a spokesman for radical cleric Moqtada Sadr but splintered off from the movement at the end of 2004. According to Bergner, Qais headed up the "Secret Cells" or "Special Groups," Shia militia elements "funded, trained and armed" by the Qods Force. Documents found with Qais showed he had ordered several attacks against Coalition forces in Basra. Asked about Sadr's current influence over these groups, Bergner said, "They're operating outside his control." Laith was a smaller player in these Special Groups which, Bergner claimed, receive somewhere between $750,000 and $3 million dollars a month from Iran.
The third individual grabbed in the raid, Ali Musa Daqduq, had not been previously identified by the U.S. military. Efforts to pin down his identity may have been delayed because he initially claimed to be a deaf mute and gave U.S. military officials an alias. Bergner said in the briefing today that Daqduq's identity had been corroborated through interviews with other individuals linked to the Special Groups as well as documents found during the raid. Daqduq, who's Lebanese, joined Hizbullah in 1983 and commanded a special operations unit. He also coordinated protection for Hizbullah secretary general Hassan Nasrallah. According to Bergner, Daqduq was sent to Iran in 2005 to meet with representatives from the Qods Force. In the past year, Daqduq made four trips to Iraq to liaise with the Special Groups and help train their fighters in the use of mortars, rockets and IEDs as well as the use of kidnapping techniques. "He was tasked to organize the Special Groups in ways that mirrored how Hizbullah was organized in Lebanon," Bergner said. Qods Force and Hizbullah instructors, Bergner claimed, train groups of 20 to 60 Iraqis at a time in three camps near Tehran.
Since February, approximately 21 high-level members of these Special Groups have been nabbed and three have been killed. Still, Bergner said that these groups "remain a serious concern." And they're involved in all kinds of nasty business: "planning and execution of bombings, kidnappings, extortion, sectarian murders, illegal arms trafficking." But the most high-profile attack attributed to these Special Groups is the raid on the Provincial Joint Coordination Center in Karbala. That attack, on January 20, showed a level of sophistication that Iraqi insurgents, both Shia and Sunni, had not demonstrated before. The attackers used American-style uniforms, IDs and cars to get into the Karbala compound. Iraqi security officials interviewed at the time said the attackers also spoke English. Five American soldiers were cuffed and pulled out of the compound during the raid and they were later shot when Iraqi security forces closed in on the attackers. The Qods Force, Bergner said today, "had developed detailed information regarding our soldiers's activities, shift changes and defenses and this information was shared with the attackers." The man thought to have led the attack, Azhar al Dulaymi, an Iraqi, was killed by U.S. forces on May 19.
For their part, Iranian officials have repeatedly denied any links to the Karbala attack or any role in supporting Shia militias. Asked about the Karbala attack in a NEWSWEEK interview last February, Iran's ambassador to Iraq, Hassan Kazemi-Qomi, said, "We don't have a role in any of these kinds of actions. And these accusations, from our standpoint, are condemnable." It's puzzling why the U.S. military would roll this information out now. A few weeks ago, Qomi met with U.S. Ambassador Ryan Crocker in Baghdad, one of the few times in the past quarter century that representatives of the two countries have met face to face, and it seemed like the diplomatic efforts were on track. According to Bergner, the point of the briefing today was to bring about a "reconciliation of intent" – in other words, pressure the Iranians to match their diplomatic rhetoric with their actions on the ground. And he pointed his finger at the top. "Senior leadership in Iran are aware of this activity," Bergner said. He also said it would be "hard to imagine" that Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei wasn't aware of the activities of the Revolutionary Guard.
It's harder to imagine how the diplomatic efforts between Iran and the United States can proceed after today's briefing.