Cables Shed Light On Iran's Influence In Iraq

Among the details contained in WikiLeaks' latest round of diplomatic documents are revelations about Iran's influence within Iraq. The State Department cables say that days after the start of U.S. operations in Iraq, Iran funneled a vast amount of money and operatives into the country. The cables also say Iranian Revolutionary Guards were involved in a wave of killings in Iraq, targeting former Iraqi air force pilots. Guest host Guy Raz talks to NPR's Deborah Amos in Baghdad about how the cables are playing in Iraq.

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GUY RAZ, host:

In Iraq, the latest revelations from WikiLeaks have been front-page news with a focus on Iran's role in the country. The leaked documents paint a portrait of broad Iranian influence since the U.S. invasion in 2003, influence backed by loads of cash, and high-level connections.

For more, we're joined by NPR's Deborah Amos. She's with us from Baghdad. And Deb, first of all, these documents suggest that Iran handed out between 100 to $200 million to its allies in Iraq and that its influence reaches very, very high into the Iraqi government. What are you finding out about this?

DEBORAH AMOS: Well, I talked to some lawmakers tonight who didn't blanch at that number. The embassy cables cite political leaders, current president Jalal Talabani and Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, as having, quote, longstanding, close ties to the commander of Iran's notorious al-Qud's force. That's the arm of the Revolutionary Guard corps.

What the cables paint is this picture of Iran from day one after the invasion, planning to neutralize the country, to influence the country, to send operatives into the country, who came as businessmen, as doctors and as bagmen with loads of cash.

RAZ: Deb, there was one striking revelation from the cables, and it's a report that Iranian operatives were targeting and assassinating Iraqi air force pilots. These are pilots who had bombed Iran during the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s. What more have you found out about that?

AMOS: There's not many details in the cable from the embassy. It just lays out this charge. However, it may confirm these reports that have been floating in Iraq for years.

I've interviewed military officers who claimed that they were on the assassination list. That we know. Many of those people fled to Jordan or to Syria.

Now, the embassy cable reports that the death toll by the end of 2009 was 180. That seems unlikely that any of those top Iraqi military or air force people were still in the country by then. The lawmakers I talked to tonight said so many people were targeted in the sectarian war, it's hard to know.

What I find interesting about this is that the embassy has such specific figures. If they knew that these top people were being targeted, these were some of the brightest minds in the country, why weren't any of these people offered some kind of protection?

Now with the Americans leaving at the end of 2011, there would be no security for these people at all, and they are most likely in permanent exile.

RAZ: Deb, these cables suggest this relentless web of Iranian influence in Iraq. You've covered this story for so many years. Does any of this surprise you?

AMOS: Not really. I think you have to keep in mind that these are embassy cables. It's part of that information stream that diplomats send back to the State Department. Many of these reports are opinions, and these are embassy personnel who are very much restricted in their movements in Iraq. So it's an incomplete picture.

But what you read is the warnings from the U.S. Embassy in Iraq that Iran is a serious contender, one that the U.S. Embassy saw as training, funding, arming militias, using soft power, up to $4 billion in trade to further their aims. This is a much bigger operation, in some ways, than what the U.S. is doing and what the U.S. will do after we leave.

And as much as Iraqi officials denied those leaks, when I talked to them tonight, they said there was much truth in that reporting.

RAZ: That's NPR's Deborah Amos, reporting from Baghdad. Deb, thanks so much.

AMOS: Thank you, Guy.

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