January 12, 2007

Hoshyar and I - the Iraqi foreign minister on detention of Iranians

Hoshyar ZebariIraqi foreign minister Hoshyar Zebari is between a rock (or Iraq) and a hard place as he attempts to defuse a diplomatic issue between American forces and Iran. Good luck.

Earlier this week, American forces, acting on intelligence information that Iranian Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) officers were operating in northern Iraq out of a building in the Kurdish city of Irbil, raided the facility and detained five Iranians. The Americans claim the five are part of an IRGC team in country.

Is the IRGC operating in northern Iraq?

Of course they are - they've been there since at least 1991. Soon after the Iraqi defeat in Kuwait, IRGC officers have been conducting clandestine and covert operations in the southern Shi'a area and the northern Kurdish area. Everyone is aware of the Shi'a rebellion in the southern part of Iraq after Saddam Husayn's defeat in Kuwait, but the IRGC has been at work all over the country.

I was assigned to CIA's northern Iraq operations teams in 1995 and 1996. Our job was not only to observe and report on the situation inside the country, but to assess the conditions for an eventual coup against Saddam Husayn. Our allies in this effort were the two major Kurdish factions, the Kurdish Democratic Party (KDP) and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK). Our base of operations was in Salah Al-Din, a former resort city in the KDP area of the country. It follows that most of our contacts were with KDP officials, among them Hoshyar Zebari.

Although overall I thought KDP members were not as pragmatic as the PUK, I found Hoshyar to be an enlightened realist. Hoshyar and I are about the same age and have broken bread together, and yes, tipped a few glasses. Hoshyar was educated in England and Jordan, and is astutely aware of international relations and international opinion. He was the KDP representative to both the United Kingdom and the United States. While I was dealing with him in northern Iraq, I appreciated the fact that he understood that our relationship with the Kurds was about Saddam Husayn and not about the conflict between the KDP and the PUK - and he knew full well that I was more sympathetic to the PUK.

Back to the IRGC. They were there when I was there, as were other countries' teams, and we ran across the IRGC teams on numerous occasions. We had an unspoken arrangement not to interfere with each other. There were times that we would be billeted in the same guest house as the IRGC teams - those were the nights we slept with weapons in hand, ready to fire. Dinners in the hotel dining room were interesting and intense - all of us, both sides, had AK-47''s and sidearms "locked and cocked" while eating dinner.

The Kurds - especially the PUK - had (and have) a close relationship with the Iranians, meaning the IRGC. When Saddam Husayn gassed the Kurds, when the Iraqi army was killing thousands of Kurds, the Iranians became an ally. After all, they provided refuge to hundreds of thousands of Kurds. That tie is hard to break and hard to ignore. It is no surprise that Hoshyar Zebari feels he must defend the Iranians in this issue.

The Kurds have to decide whose side they are on, as does the Iraqi government of Nuri Al-Maliki. Are they with us or with the Iranians?