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Petraeus and the "Proxy War" Argument

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The Weekly Standard's Michael Goldfarb attacks my analysis for Inter Press Service of the administration's "proxy war" argument in Iraq, which points out that Gen. Petraeus's Congressional testimony last week embraced the official line that Iran is using its elite "Quds force" in Iraq to mold the Shiites into a proxy force to fight U.S. troops, only to contradict it later by saying that that the Quds force had been withdrawn from Iraq.

Goldfarb insists that the full text of Petraeus's answer "directly contradicts" my analysis and that actually supported the official propaganda line.

Really? Here's the text of the entire question and answer in question, as published by the Standard:

REP. HUNTER: Just one final question. You have mentioned -- and we're all familiar with -- Ambassador Crocker's team and their meetings with the Iranians. You mentioned early on that -- both of you, I believe -- that military equipment -- that deadly military equipment continues to flow from Iran. Has that flow increased or decreased since your meetings?

GEN. PETRAEUS: We believe that it has increased, at least based on the number of explosively formed projectile attacks, in particular, and to a lesser degree, rocket attacks. It's tough to tell how long it takes to get it all the way into the pipeline. There was a brief drop-off for a couple of weeks , but it appears that that is increasing. And we do not see a sign of that abating, nor do we see signs of the training or other activity, although the Qods Force itself -- we believe, by [and] large, those individuals have been pulled out of the country, as have the Lebanese Hezbollah trainers that were being used to augment that activity.

You can see that Goldfarb has a problem trying to defend the integrity of the "proxy war" line in the face of this answer. Petraeus gave an essentially ambiguous answer to the question of whether there has been an increase in military equipment flowing into Iraq ("It's tough to tell how long it takes to get it all way into the pipeline") and then noted that the Shiite militia have launched more EFP and rocket attacks.

But that fact obviously has no bearing on the "proxy war" argument. That argument turns on the deployment of Quds force personnel in Iraq and their interacting with the Shiite militias who are supposed to be whipped into shape to be the Iraqi Hezbollah. Here's Petraeus's formulation of the argument, as found on page 5 of his prepared statement: "It is increasingly apparent to both coalition and Iraqi leaders that Iran, through the use of the Quds force, seeks to turn the Iraqi special groups into a Hezbollah-like force to serve its interests and fight a proxy war against the Iraqi state and coalition forces in Iraq."

So Petraeus's statement that "those individuals have been pulled out of the country" dealt a serious blow to the credibility of the whole "proxy war" argument.

Even before this Petraeus statement, some evidence had seeped through cracks of the propaganda system to indicate that the whole idea that the Quds force has been feverishly working with Shiite militias to kill Americans was a falsehood. Despite the fact that the U.S. military command has arrested and interrogated a number of alleged leaders of the Iraqi network that is alleged to have been created by the Quds force, it has not captured or even identified a single Iranian official in Iraq who has been working on the transfer of weapons to them. On July 6, Maj. Gen. Rick Lynch, commander of U.S. operations south of Baghdad, admitted to reporters, in answer to a question, that his troops had not captured "anybody that we can tie to Iran".

And in another unreported revelation, U.S. command spokesman Brig. Gen. Kevin Bergner let slip in answering a question during a briefing on July 2 that the Iranians had left the training of Shiite militias in Iraq to Hezbollah, because Hezbollah could "do things that perhaps they didn't want to have to do themselves in terms of interacting directly with special groups [emphasis added]".

So contrary to the proxy war line, the Quds force has been avoiding direct relations with the Shiite forces they are supposed to be turning into an Iranian catspaw. Apparently Iran is not so stupid as to offer the Bush administration an excuse to carry out a bombing attack against it.

Other propaganda themes on Iraq advanced by Petraeus in recent months may have helped the Bush administration's political position, but the proxy war theme is in serious trouble, and the squirming at the Weekly Standard over my article may be seen as one indicator of its distress.