Thursday, August 9, 2007

The Iran Attack That Wasn't

How reporters trumped up a story about Iranians killing Americans in Iraq

by Gareth Porter

On July 2 and 3, The New York Times and the Associated Press, among other media outlets, came out with sensational stories saying that either Iranians or Iranian agents had played an important role in planning the operation in Karbala, Iraq last January that resulted in the deaths of five American soldiers. Michael R. Gordon and John F. Burns of The New York Times wrote that "agents of Iran" had been identified by the military spokesman as having "helped plan a January raid in the Shiite holy city of Karbala in Iraq in which five American soldiers were killed by Islamic militants …"

Lee Keath of the Associated Press wrote an even more lurid lead, asserting that U.S. military spokesman Brig. Gen. Kevin Bergner had accused "Iran's elite Quds force" of having "helped militants carry out a January attack in Karbala that killed five Americans."

The story was a big break for the war-with-Iran faction in Washington. Within hours, Sen. Joe Lieberman issued a press release saying that the Iranian government "has declared war on us." That set the stage for the unanimous passage the following week of his amendment stating that "the murder of members of the United States Armed Forces by a foreign government or its agents is an intolerable act of hostility against the United States," and demanding the government of Iran "take immediate action" to end all forms of support it is providing to Iraqi militias and insurgents.

No one questioned the authenticity of the story at the time. But the official source -- Brig. Gen. Bergner -- offered no real evidence of Iranian involvement in planning the January attack in his press briefing on July 2. Even more remarkably, Bergner never even explicitly claimed such direct Iranian involvement in the planning. Instead, he used carefully ambiguous language that implied but did not state such an Iranian role.

It was not Bergner, in fact, but New York Times military reporter Michael Gordon who articulated the narrative of an Iranian-inspired attack on Americans. Gordon, readers may recall, played a key role, along with Judith Miller, in legitimizing a major theme of the Bush administration's Iraq propaganda -- the infamous aluminum tubes argument -- as the White House Iraq Group kicked off its campaign to prepare public opinion for war in September 2002. And in February 2007, Gordon enthusiastically embraced the administration's charge of official Iranian arms exports to Iraq in his coverage of that issue, despite a notable lack of evidence for the charge.

But at the Bergner press briefing on July 2, Gordon went even further in playing the role of transmission belt for the Bush administration line. The transcript of that briefing, obtained from the U.S. military command press desk in Baghdad, shows that when Bergner failed to claim a direct Iranian involvement -- or even through a Hezbollah operative in Iraq -- in the planning of the January raid in Karbala, Gordon pushed him to state clearly that the Iranians not only helped plan but actually "directed" the attack on Americans.

What Bergner said in his prepared statement was that both Hezbollah operative Ali Musa Daqduq, who was in liaison with the militia group which carried out the attack, and Kais Khazali, the Iraqi said to have been in charge of the group -- both of whom had been captured on March 22 -- "state that senior leadership within the Qods Force knew of and supported planning for the eventual Karbala attack …"

Using such indirect language -- "knew of and supported planning" -- is a far cry from claiming actual participation or assistance in planning the attack. Bergner gave no indication of when or how the Iranian Qods Force might have learned about the attack plans, for example, or how much they might have known about them. That vagueness implied that the prisoners had not implicated Iran in the planning of the operation.

Bergner also said Daqduq "contends that the Iraqi special groups could not have conducted this complex operation without the support and direction of the Qods Force." That statement was ambiguous: it could be interpreted as referring to support and direction of the Karbala operation, but if Bergner meant to flatly state that there was such "direction" of the operation from Iran, why would he have attributed such indirect language to the same prisoner?

These statements seem to be a deliberate tease by Bergner, who provided neither complete transcripts of the interrogations nor quotations from the prisoners.

Although Bergner provided a number of details in the briefing about Hezbollah training of Shiite militia groups in Iran, including the number of sites, their location, and the number of militiamen trained at any given time, he did not claim that the specific group in question had been trained by Hezbollah, either in Iran or anywhere else. And he stated that the attack was authorized not by the Hezbollah cadre or by the Qods Force, but by the group's Iraqi chief, Kais Khazali.

Bergner's failure to refer explicitly to an Iranian or Hezbollah role in the actual planning of the attack prompted Gordon to help formulate the story for the spokesman. "What's new here, as I understand it," said Gordon during the briefing, "is that you're asserting the Qods Force and the Iranians had specific knowledge of this attack in advance and helped guide and support it, not merely train the force." He then prodded Bergner to say that the purpose of Iranians was to try to "capture these American soldiers in the hope of trading them for the detained Iraqi officials."

Bergner refrained from addressing Gordon's restatement of the story as Iranian help and guidance of the January attack. Instead he responded to Gordon's thesis about the objective of the Karbala operation, saying, "The specific motivations behind these operations that I described, we're still learning more about that."

Frustrated by Bergner's unwillingness to be specific, Gordon pushed him once again. "But you're asserting essentially that the Qods Force directed and helped plan this attack in Karbala," he insisted.

Bergner responded, "That is what we learned from [K]ais Khazali," and said nothing more on the subject. If Bergner’s earlier failure to use such precise language had been due merely to incompetence, one might have expected him to take advantage of Gordon’s prompting to state the story more forcefully and even elaborate on it. But his use of the indefinite "that" and his failure to volunteer anything further indicate that Bergner was not prepared to be quoted as making an explicit allegation of direct Iranian -- or Hezbollah -- involvement in planning the Karbala raid – even though he did not discourage reporters from writing the story that way.

Another indication that the command had no evidence of Iranian involvement in the attack was the statements of the top commander in Iraq, Gen. David Petraeus, on the issue in an April 26 press briefing. Petraeus had referred to a 22-page memorandum captured with the Shiite prisoners that he said "detailed the planning, preparation, approval process and conduct of the operation that resulted in five of our soldiers being killed in Karbala." But he did not claim that either the document or the interrogation of Khazali had suggested any Iranian or Hezbollah participation in, much less direction of the planning of the Karbala assault.

Later in that briefing, a reporter asked whether Petraeus was "saying that there was evidence of Iranian involvement in that [Karbala] operation?" Petraeus responded, "No. No. No. That -- first of all, that was the operation that you mentioned, and we do not have a direct link to Iranian involvement in that particular case."

At the time Petraeus made this statement, Khazali, the chief of the militia group that had carried out the attack, had been in U.S. custody for more than a month. Despite nearly five weeks of intensive interrogation of Khazali, Petraeus's comments would indicate that U.S. officials had not learned anything that implicated Iran or Hezbollah in the planning or execution of the Karbala attack

The raid on the Karbala Provincial Joint Coordination Center on Jan. 20 was a serious embarrassment for the Bush administration. Some 30 gunmen traveled in a convoy of at least seven SUVs with tinted windows, just like those driven by top U.S. military officials, wearing uniforms similar to those worn by the U.S. military. By flashing fake identification cards, they gained access to the compound through three different checkpoints without a security screening.

Soon after the attack, U.S. officials speculated that it had been carried out by Iranians or "Iranian-trained operatives," arguing that it was "beyond what we have seen militias or foreign fighters do." Officials suggested that the raid -- coming a little over a week after Iranian officials had been seized by U.S. forces in Iraq -- was aimed at exchanging American prisoners for those Iranians. But it was also reported that some officials had concluded that it was an "inside job," which could not have been undertaken without help from someone working within the camp.

The revival of the charge of Iranian involvement in the Karbala attack, despite the earlier Petraeus denial, has the all the hallmarks of a White House decision. The alleged Iranian export of arms to Iraqi Shiites, on which the U.S. command briefed the media in Baghdad in February, reflected the administration's decisions in the preceding months to hold Iran responsible for the killing of U.S. troops in Iraq with armor-piercing explosives. After the replacement of the top commander in Iraq with a general who had pledged to carry out the surge strategy chosen by the White House, and the June arrival of a new U.S. command spokesman in Baghdad -- Gen. Bergner -- who had been special assistant to the president and senior director for Iraq, the command’s briefings were tied more closely to the White House propaganda machine than ever before.

But the success of this media operation also depended on journalists who would fill in the blanks cleverly left open by Bergner with their own imagination. As the transcript of the briefing shows, Michael Gordon was not just a passively recording the line presented by the administration. He was actively pushing the sensational -- and unsubstantiated and highly suspect -- story of "Iranians killing Americans" that would then become a mantra of the war-with-Iran crowd.

Gareth Porter, a historian and journalist, writes regularly on U.S. policy in Iran and Iraq for Inter Press Service. His most recent book is
Perils of Dominance: Imbalance of Power and the Road to War in Vietnam (University of California Press, 2005).