We still do not know all the details about the bold January 20 attack on a secure American compound, which killed five American soldiers in Karbala. Investigations are ongoing, and it is obvious that the Americans do not want to give away too much information about the tactics used by the attackers and about the compound itself.
Noah expressed concern earlier about the change in U.S. policy on Iranian operatives in Iraq. It is possible that these policy changes came in response to intelligence about increased Iranian involvement on the ground in attacks against American forces. In the wake of the Karbala raid, speculation immediately mounted about the possibility of direct or indirect Iranian involvement - mainly because of the mission's success and precision. Sunni insurgents were ruled out from the get-go, as it is highly unlikely that they would have been able to operate in the area.
But the evidence for Iranian involvement - at least those bits released to the press - is highly circumstantial. It revolves, on the one hand, around the use of SUVs, uniforms, and weapons that only American troops in Iraq employ, and, on the other, around the ease with which the convoy of 9 to 12 operators were able to penetrate the compound (New York Times). Some of this information has been released by Iraqi officials rather than the U.S. government. This makes it all the more suspect.
It is possible that the Iranians had a hand in this. But it seems far more likely that Iraqis orchestrated the attack. One of the details that emerged in press reports was that the militants spoke "perfect English" and looked like Americans, leading Iraqi guards to wave them through without questions. It seems rather more likely that they were waved through by Iraqi soldiers involved in the attack. American investigators on the ground are heavily leaning toward this policy, as statements by an unnamed U.S. military official in the NYT suggest:
"We’ve got to be very careful as to who we define as our allies, and who we trust and who we don’t,” the military official said. “Was the governor involved? Were the Iraqi police that were on guard complicit or just incompetent?”It is, however, far more convenient for the Bush administration and the Iraqi government to blame the attack on the Iranians. No doubt the Iranians are up to no good in Iraq; but using them as a smoke-screen to protect the administration of al-Maliki (for whom Mahdi Army involvement would be a profound embarrassment) seriously endangers the lives of American soldiers.
If Iran was indeed involved, the U.S. should bide its time and pick the right moment for an appropriate response - perhaps a response that could be blamed on Sunni militias or al-Qaeda. In any case, given the nature of the evidence released so far, the Karbala incident must not be used in arguments for a war with Iran.