The top American commander in Iraq is accusing Iran of engineering the disqualification of 145 Iraqi Sunnis from next month's election, a move that could leave the country's Sunni community feeling unrepresented and angry when the results come in. General Ray Odierno also told an audience during a visit to Washington Tuesday if there is significant instability in Iraq after the election, he might have to recommend slowing down the planned withdrawal of tens of thousands of U.S. troops.
General Odierno told an event organized by the Institute for the Study of War that Iran is still using its Quds Force to fund, train and equip Shi'ite militias in Iraq. He said although Iraqi military action has broken up many such groups, several remain, and continue to plant powerful roadside bombs directed at U.S. and Iraqi forces, and carry out other attacks aimed at discrediting the Iraqi government.
But the general indicated one of Iran's most serious efforts in recent months has been to convince the leaders of Iraq's Justice and Accountability Commission to block hundreds of Sunni politicians from participating in next month's national elections. An appeals court later reduced the number to 145. "Unfortunately, it happened right before the election, which was clearly planned very carefully by certain individuals, Ahmed Chalabi and others, who, I would argue are getting support by other nations, who, in fact, are trying to push very specific agendas inside of Iraq," he said.
General Odierno then got more specific, accusing Chalabi, who had close ties to the United States before the 2003 invasion of Iraq, of working directly with Iran's Quds Force, and its alleged Iraq commander Mehdi Mohandes. The general says Chalabi and the other Commission leader, Ali al Lami, went to Iran to consult about the candidates issue.
"He [al Lami] and Chalabi are clearly influenced by Iran. We have direct intelligence that tells us that. They've had several meetings in Iran. And we believe they're absolutely involved in influencing the outcome of the election. And it's concerning that they've been able to do that over time," the general said.
The general says the controversy over Sunni candidates with alleged ties to the former Baath party and Saddam Hussein has put sectarian issues at the forefront of the Iraqi election campaign. But he believes Iraqi politicians will be forced, as the campaign continues, to address the key concerns of the Iraqi people. He says a recent survey indicates those are the jobs, basic services, future prosperity and security, in that order.
He also disputed the charge that U.S. officials, including Vice President Joe Biden, tried to play too large a role in opposing the Justice Commission's decision.
"What we have to do is protect the democratic process. What we need is when this election is over the people of Iraq feel that the democratic process served them, and that it was not hijacked by a few people. If they believe the democratic process, for the most part, served them, I believe we're really on track to really move Iraq forward," he said.
General Odierno also said he believes the election will create a parliament in which leaders will need to form a coalition involving more than two parties, a process that could take months.
The general is scheduled to begin a sharp drawdown of U.S. troops shortly after the election from their current level of 97,000 to 50,000 by the end of August. But he left open the possibility that he could recommend a delay in reaching that agreed-upon number. "I believe I have flexibility to at least make recommendations to the leadership on what we should do based on the situation on the ground. It's my assessment, though, within the first 60 days or so we'll know if there's going to be a problem that's going to lead to some violent behavior that would require us to maintain more force," he said.
But General Odierno indicated he does not particularly expect that to be needed, and predicted he could reach the August goal ahead of schedule. He also noted that even 50,000 U.S. troops focused on advising and assisting Iraqi forces have significant capability to help maintain order, if that is needed.
The general said Iraqi security forces have improved significantly in recent years, and should be able to handle internal security by the end of 2011, when the rest of the American troops are scheduled to leave. But he said Iraq will still need support for external security. He also said the Iraqi people have rejected the militant and violent ideology of al-Qaida, which he called a "huge, huge" statement for an Arab country to make.