December 19, 2004
By Jim Hoagland
Scare tactics played a larger than usual role in U.S. elections in November. They are now being unleashed in Iraq in hopes of saving the rapidly sinking campaign of the CIA's favorite local politician, Ayad Allawi.
The interim prime minister and his aides do not trot out a Yellow Peril or a Red Menace for the Iraqi electorate. The new threat, in the words of interim Defense Minister Hazim Shalan, is "the Black Horde." The ayatollahs of Iran "are out to liquidate you," Shalan told Iraqis on Wednesday as the campaign for national assembly elections formally and viciously opened.
A few hours later, at the White House, President Bush echoed that dire concern. In response to a reporter's question, Bush said that Iran and its ally Syria must recognize that "meddling in the internal affairs of Iraq is not in their interest."
Public warnings -- delivered in remarkably similar terms -- about an Iranian plot to impose an Islamic theocracy on Iraq have come from another CIA favorite and partner, King Abdullah of Jordan, and even from Ghazi Yawar, the moderate interim president of Iraq, both of whom visited Washington earlier this month.
This barrage of indictments of Iran -- and by implication of the Shiite religious hierarchy in Iraq -- goes beyond simple statements of fact or professions of understandable suspicion of the pernicious regime in Tehran. The rhetoric smacks of covert orchestration, of a plan to stay on message with a bloodcurdling campaign theme. If Bush truly wants to prevent foreign manipulation of Iraq's nascent electoral process, he may have to rein in his own intelligence agents first.
Do not hold your breath. Allawi publicly praised and thanked Bush during the American election campaign. Allawi is also a longtime client of the CIA, which has extensive experience in intervening secretly in foreign elections, most notably in post-World War II Europe. Providing funds and campaign help to Allawi's party would be Tradecraft 101 at Langley.
But will it work as smoothly as the spies suggest to the White House? Allawi's soaring unpopularity at home and his demonstrated ineffectiveness in power suggest otherwise. Moreover, any short-term gains from installing a pliable "strongman" in Baghdad would bring significant long-term costs for the regional security strategy that the administration needs but has yet to elaborate and implement.
Step one for such a strategy is not to treat the January election of a 275-member national assembly -- which will name a new government and oversee the writing of a constitution -- as one more opportunity to use Iraq as a platform for fighting Iran. This election is about majority rule leading to democracy in Iraq, not about a quarter-century of hostility between Washington and Tehran.
The electoral context of the warnings about Iranian meddling is clear in Shalan's "Black Horde" outburst. The epithet came as a response to the filing of a unified list of candidates supported by Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, the Shiite majority's most prominent cleric.
"They want the dictatorship of Islam and clerical rule," Shalan railed. He accused Sistani aide Hussain Shahristani of being an Iranian agent, much as U.S. intelligence sources earlier this year used that smear against a troublesome Allawi rival, Ahmed Chalabi (who is also on the Sistani list).
Bluster, rhetoric and dirty tricks are a poor substitute for vision and effective policy to control the real dangers that Tehran presents. But the CIA, Allawi and Shalan have little else to offer. They work together to rehabilitate senior aides to the ousted dictator, praising them as people who understand and will defeat the Iranian threat.
The agency's Baghdad station chief recently suggested to Yawar that he should meet with Mohammed Younis Ahmed, a particularly noxious Baathist thug who directs terrorist attacks from Syria, rather than arrest him -- although the United States has put up a $1 million reward for the Baathist's capture. To his credit, the interim president immediately and angrily refused, according to reliable reports circulating in Baghdad and Washington.
"People will never see themselves even in hell with a guy like that," Yawar told me in Washington. He confirmed that the request had come to him, but declined to discuss where it originated. Agreeing to meet with the Baathist henchman as elections approach would have seriously jeopardized Yawar's political future.
That left Yawar to ponder if his covert interlocutor did not understand that -- or understood it all too well. And it should leave Bush pondering the wisdom of letting secret, politically unaccountable agents play a leading role in fulfilling the president's promise to bring democracy to Iraq.
© 2004 The Washington Post Company