WASHINGTON, (AFP) — The US commander in Iraq on Tuesday accused two Iraqi politicians at the center of a dispute over blacklisting electoral candidates of having ties to an arm of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards.
General Ray Odierno said Ali al-Allami and Ahmed Chalabi “clearly are influenced by Iran.”
“We have direct intelligence that tells us that,” the commander told an audience at the Institute for the Study of War in Washington.
Allami heads a committee responsible for ensuring that individuals with links to executed dictator Saddam Hussein’s Baath party are barred from standing in next month’s elections in Iraq.
Chalabi also sits on the committee and has fallen out of favor with Washington after intelligence he provided to back the US case for the Iraq war turned out to be flawed.
The dispute over who can stand in the March 7 general election has raised sectarian tensions in Iraq and alarmed Washington, which views the polls as a crucial precursor to a complete military withdrawal by the end of 2011.
The vote is seen as a test of reconciliation efforts between the population’s Sunni minority dominant under Saddam and the Shiite majority now represented by the current government led by Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki.
Odierno said Allami and Chalabi have had several meetings in Iran with a close aide to the commander of the Quds force, the covert operations arm of Iran’s powerful Revolutionary Guards.
“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,” he said, apparently referring to the Tehran regime.
US military officers have previously charged that the Quds force backed Shiite militias involved in Iraq’s bloody sectarian conflict.
Allami was detained in 2008 after US intelligence indicated he was involved in bombings in Baghdad targeting American civilians and soldiers leaving a meeting with local government officials, Odierno said.
But he was released in August 2009 because of a lack evidence that could be used in an Iraqi court, he said.
“All we had was intelligence that linked him to this attack. So, as we had some others, we had to release him.”
The general alleged Allami “has been involved in very nefarious activities in Iraq for some time” and that it was “disappointing that somebody like him was in fact put in charge or has been able to run this commission.”
The general acknowledged the process for vetting Iraqi candidates should have been more transparent but he said that the issue’s importance had been overstated.
“So in my mind, again, we’ve allowed this argument about de-Baathification to really drive this too far,” he said.
“And the impact actually on the election will be small,” as relatively few candidates among thousands would be affected, he said.
Odierno also said Tehran’s activity in Iraq has moved away from “lethal” methods to a degree and shifted towards using political and financial means to exert influence.
“We still uncover Iranian rockets and other goods that are made and individuals who are trained in Iran to conduct attacks against both US and Iraqi security forces, I want to emphasize,” he said.
Iran’s militant activity has been “consistent” but it is “lower than it’s been” in the past, he said.
President Barack Obama has vowed to withdraw US troops from Iraq by the end of 2011 and to scale back the force to 50,000 by August when American combat soldiers are due to pull out.
Odierno said he would weigh the pace of US drawdown plans based on the aftermath of the election.
“I’ve always said about 60 days following the elections is when we really need to do an evaluation to determine what security will look like.”