While the Obama Administration has decided to send an ambassador to Syria, the Iraqi government has withdrawn theirs. After seven years of Syria supporting the insurgency, deliberately contributing to the deaths of Iraqis and Coalition soldiers, the al-Maliki government is standing up against Assad’s terrorism in a way the U.S. is currently failing to.
The diplomatic crisis began shortly after twin bombings in Baghdad on August 19. The attacks occurred across the street of the Foreign Ministry and at the Finance Ministry, killing over 100 people. This was the deadliest incident since U.S. forces were removed from the cities, handing control over to the Iraqi Security Forces on June 30. Although the Islamic State of Iraq, an Al-Qaeda affiliate, claimed credit for the attacks, the Iraqi government does not believe they are the only ones responsible.
The al-Maliki government, realizing that it must confront its terrorism-sponsoring neighbors as U.S. forces leave, threw down the gauntlet with Syria following the attacks, accusing the Assad regime of harboring Iraqi Baathists who ordered them.
“Our relations with Syria have reached a crossroads of whether they choose to have good relations with Iraq, or whether they choose to protect persons who attack Iraq,” said Ali al-Dabbagh, a government spokesperson. Among these, al-Dabbagh said, are Mohammed Younis al-Ahmed and Sattam Farhan.
Syria is not only supporting the Baathist element of the insurgency, but is also supporting
Al-Qaeda, which has disregarded its theological differences with both the Syrian and Iraqi Baathists in order to destabilize the region. The Italian press has reported that in June, Sheikh Issa al-Masri, a high-level Al-Qaeda terrorist, left Pakistan and arrived in Syria via Iran. He is currently in Damascus, protected by Syrian intelligence, and is suspected of having a role in the twin bombings. Working under him is Abu Khalaf, another Al-Qaeda operative in Syria.
On August 30, the Iraqi government released the videotaped confession of a captured Saudi Al-Qaeda terrorist named Mohammed Hassan al-Shemari, believed to have led operations in Diyala Province, ordering suicide bombings and attacks on Iraqi security personnel. He said that he trained at an Al-Qaeda camp in Syria run by an agent of Syrian intelligence named Abu al-Qaqaa and that “the camp was well known to Syrian intelligence.”
Al-Qaqa was a radical Muslim cleric that was assassinated in September 2007, but was widely suspected of having ties to the Syrians authorities. The publication of this tape is an escalation in the diplomatic row between Iraq and Syria, with the Iraqis showing they intend to hold the Assad regime accountable.
Al-Maliki himself has used remarkably tough language, saying “Neighboring countries should behave like good neighbors because it is not hard for us to do the same things they did.” Although al-Maliki is still following the pattern of high-level Iraqi officials in not specifically naming countries at fault, it is very clear he is referring to Syria, and by extension, Iran.
This is a direct threat to retaliate by supporting militant activities in countries sponsoring the insurgency. Although it is not clear if al-Maliki is hinting at supporting violent activities or a more comprehensive approach of hosting forces opposed to the Syrian regime, he understands that the greatest weakness of the Assad and mullah regimes is their internal instability and that this can be utilized to exert pressure. In the area of knowing how best to counter these regimes, the Iraqi government seems to be a step ahead of the U.S.
David Ignatius of The Washington Post reported on August 25 that Iraqi intelligence sources say that the explosives used in the August 19 bombings match those manufactured by the Iranians and used elsewhere in the country. If true, this supports a report that Iraqi intelligence has concluded that Syria and Iran are following a coordinated strategy where terrorists are backed by Iran but operate through Syria, minimizing Iran’s fingerprints.
According to the report, which was published in the Iraqi Al-Zaman newspaper, Iraqi intelligence has reportedly informed al-Maliki and the highest officials that Iran is directly sponsoring Al-Qaeda elements in Iraq, again placing the Iraqis ahead of major elements of the U.S. national security apparatus that still believe such a partnership is impossible.
Iraqi intelligence has identified three groups sponsored by the Iranians that work with Al-Qaeda-linked extremists. The first is the Revolutionary Guards’ Al-Quds Brigade, which has been training Iraqis from Baghdad, Anbar, and Mosul to carry out acts of terrorism, even against churches and Shiite mosques. The second is the Islamic State of Iraq, which claimed credit for the August 19 bombings. The third is Ansar al-Islam, an Al-Qaeda affiliate, which the report says receives directives from Iran.
The Iraqi government has been reluctant to explicitly point the finger at Iran, probably due to the long-standing personal ties between prominent officials and parties and the regime, but Al-Maliki must understand that Syria works at Iran’s behest, and his bold assertion of Iraqi sovereignty and dignity is a challenge to both countries.
His warning that Iraq is capable of fomenting domestic unrest in “neighboring countries” shows that the Iraqi government knows the vulnerabilities of its enemies and is standing up for itself. The message is also directed at the U.S.: Iraq won’t allow itself to be sacrificed while the U.S. tries to engage its attackers.