Iraq War: Syria Versus Iran – Proxy War

Fears are growing that a pan-Arab conflict is unfolding in Iraq which could draw the entire region into a major Shiite versus Sunni showdown. 

Iran and Syria have long been accused by the US and Iraqi governments of escalating the violence in Iraq by arming the opposing sects and, to a lesser extent, allowing militants to cross their borders into Iraq. This weekend, after the single deadliest bombing in Baghdad since the 2003 invasion, Iraqi government spokesman Ali al-Dabbagh went one step further and claimed that half of all insurgent attacks in Baghdad are carried out by foreign fighters from Syria.  

Speaking on the Dubai-based al-Arabiyah satellite TV network, Mr al-Dabbagh said, “Fifty per cent of terrorism enters Iraq from Syria, and we have evidence. The Interior Ministry and the Ministry of State for National Security gave [the Syrian government] evidence about those who are conspiring and are sending car bombs. We gave them the numbers of their apartments and the buildings where they live.”

It is not clear how the Iraqi government obtained these details, or why they believe the information identifies militants. Nevertheless, Mr al-Dabbagh’s statements suggest that he believes the Syrian government has refused to act on information that would enable them to stop militants and weapons headed for Iraq, which implies the allegation of state-permitted acts of terrorism. 

Syria was quick to deny the accusation, with one government official firing back that Mr al-Dabbagh’s claims are “contrary to reality and aimed at harming relations between Iraq and Syria that Damascus wants to strengthen and develop”.

Yet by all accounts, it is the Iraqi government who has initiated talks aimed at strengthening and developing relations with other countries in the region, in an effort to head off their involvement in Iraq’s sectarian conflict. It is feared that this would escalate into the much-dreaded worst-case scenario, a pan-Arab war.  

Iran has close ties to the Shiite-led Iraqi government, mostly through Iran’s alliance with the Supreme Council of Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), one of Iraq’s most powerful political parties. Predominantly Sunni countries, including Syria and Saudi Arabia, are concerned that Iraq’s government will prove a powerful ally for Iran and will increase its power in the region. Saudi Arabia has also said that if Sunnis are not protected from genocide in Shiite-dominated Iraq, it will not hesitate to enter the conflict. This would increase the likelihood of other countries taking sides and joining the fray, leading to an all-out sectarian war across the Middle East.  

Acts of terrorism such as Saturday’s horrific bombing, which the Iraqi government has blamed on al Qaeda and loyalists of Saddam Hussein, are designed to inflame emotions and force Sunnis and Shiites to choose sides in the sectarian conflict. On Saturday afternoon, a truck loaded with 2,000 pounds of explosives ripped through a bustling central Baghdad market in the Shiite district of Sadiriya, killing 152 people and wounding over 300. This was followed by mortar attacks on the Sunni enclave of Adhamiya in northern Baghdad, which is entirely surrounded by Shiite districts. Fifteen Sunnis were killed in those attacks. A further 20 people were killed across the capital in bombings and drive-by shootings over the weekend. 

The Iraqi government hopes that talks with Iran and Syria will help diffuse the volatile situation.  Last month, Iraqi President Jalal Talabani renewed diplomatic relations with Syria for the first time in nearly 30 years, in an effort to get Damascus to stop the flow of militants and weapons into Iraq.  

Last Thursday, an Iraqi Foreign Ministry official said that the Iraqi government had invited representatives from several countries across the region to begin talks in Baghdad to help stabilize Iraq. These countries include Iran, Syria, Bahrain, Egypt, Jordan, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and Turkey. The Iraqis have also asked the Arab League, the Organization of Islamic Conference and the United Nations to attend. 

It is considered most urgent for Iraq to secure agreements with the Iranians and the Syrians, who have repeatedly denied any role in Iraq’s violence. While Iran continues to deny arming and training Shiite militants, US military officials have said that the serial numbers on weapons confiscated from Shiite militants have been traced back to Iran. The US also believes that on January 20 the Iranians carried out a sophisticated attack on US forces in Karbala, 60 miles southwest of Baghdad. The heavily guarded US military compound was easily infiltrated by insurgents who arrived in US-style vehicles speaking English, wearing US-style uniforms and carrying American-style identity cards. Once inside, they opened fire, killing one US soldier and kidnapping four more, whom they later executed. 

It is believed that this attack marked a turning point in relations between the US and Iran. President Bush is now visibly stepping up pressure on Iran, whom he also accuses of deliberately destabilizing Iraq while enriching uranium to develop nuclear weapons. The US Air Force will soon be flying missions along the Iranian border to stop weapons being smuggled into Iraq, and a second US aircraft carrier is now on its way to the Persian Gulf as a warning to Iran. 

Meanwhile, US-Iraqi forces have begun their much-anticipated surge into Baghdad in which neighborhoods will be cleared of militants and then secured and held until the capital is under control. Over 4,000 US troops will also be deployed in al-Anbar province in western Iraq, a stronghold of al Qaeda and the Sunni insurgency. 

US military spokesman Major General William Caldwell urged patience while the new counterinsurgency strategy is implemented. “It is important to acknowledge that it will not turn the security situation overnight,” he said. “People must be patient. Give the government and coalition forces a chance to fully implement it.”

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