Washington - The U.S. military command in Iraq continues to talk about an alleged pipeline of Iranian weapons to Iraqi Shiites opposing the U.S. occupation, implying that they have become dependent on Iran for indirect-fire weapons and rocket-propelled grenades (RPGs).
But U.S. officials have failed thus far to provide evidence that would support that claim, and a long-delayed U.S. military report on Iranian arms is unlikely to offer any data on what proportion of the weapons in the hands of Shiite fighters are from Iran and what proportion comes from purchases on the open market.
When Maj. Gen. Kevin Bergner was asked that question at a briefing May 8, he did not answer it directly. Instead Bergner reverted to a standard U.S. military line that these groups "could not do what they're doing without the support of foreign support [sic]." Then he defined "foreign support" to include training and funding as well as weapons, implicitly conceding that he did not have much of a case based on weapons alone.
Bergner's refusal to address that question reflects a fundamental problem with the U.S. claims about Iranian weapons in Iraq: if there are indeed any Iranian rockets and mortars, and RPGs in the Mahdi Army's arsenal of stand-off weapons, they represent an insignificant part of it.
Reports by the U.S. command in Iraq over the past 15 months cited only a handful of Iranian weapons out of hundreds counted in caches found in Shiite areas. Nearly 700 mortars and rockets were reported by specific caliber size, along with a handful of RPGs, in nearly two dozen caches. Of that total, only four rockets were reported as being of Iranian origin, and another 15 were listed as possibly being Iranian.
Although those reports do not represent all the Mahdi Army caches found, they provide further evidence of the relative importance of Iranian rockets, mortars and RPGs in the Mahdi Army arsenal. That is because U.S. military officials are so eager to publicise any discovery of an Iranian-made weapon system that they would exploit any opportunity available to do so.
The U.S. command has gone so far as to claim that it had found "four Iranian hand grenades" - but they were in a cache of weapons found in an al Qaeda area.
Based on weapons caches discovered over the past 15 months, the Mahdi Army has relied overwhelmingly on four types of heavy weapons: 60mm and 120mm mortars, 107mm rocket, and 57mm anti-tank missile.
Those are essentially the same mortars and rockets that have turned up in al Qaeda and Sunni insurgent weapons caches, suggesting that both groups have obtained their heavier weapons from the international arms market. In fact, 60mm and 120mm mortars were used by Sunni guerrillas in the very early months of the war against U.S. occupation troops.
A U.S. explosives expert, Maj. Marty Weber, confirmed in April 2007 that most 107mm rockets found in Iraq were Chinese-made. He claimed that Iran had repainted Chinese 60mm and 107mm rockets them and sold them on the "open market".
However, Chinese, Yugoslav and Pakistani 107mm rockets have also been the weapon of choice of Taliban guerrillas in Afghanistan, according to U.S. military officers there.
The U.S. military has refrained from making any charges against Iran over the 107mm rockets found in Iraq, perhaps because it would support the conclusion that the Mahdi Army was buying weapons on the international market rather than obtaining them from the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps.
U.S. officials tried to capitalise on the increased mortar and rocket attacks on the Green Zone and U.S. military headquarters last year to argue that they were the result of a rising tide of Iranian supply of such stand-off weapons - particularly 240mm rockets - to what the U.S. command calls "special groups" of Shiite militiamen.
One U.S. official, who insisted on being identified only as a "senior official", told this writer in mid-September 2007 that rockets and mortars provided by Iran since the beginning of that year - and especially 240 mm rockets - were doing much greater damage because of their greater accuracy and power compared with the older Katyusha rockets - mostly from Iraqi stocks - that had been employed in attacking U.S. bases and the Green Zone in previous years.
But evidence from the U.S. command itself contradicts that dramatic narrative of a bold, new Iranian intervention in the war. A Multi-National Force - Iraq press release dated Jun. 1, 2007 reported that a cache of weapons had been found in an area from which Mahdi Army troops had fired rockets at the Green Zone. It did not claim any Iranian rockets or mortars in the cache but only 20 107mm rocket warheads, three fully assembled 107mm rockets and one 60mm mortar.
No 240mm rocket has been reported found in a Mahdi Army weapons cache over the past year, but a single warhead for a 240mm rocket was reported to have been found in Basra Apr. 19. No official claim has been made that it was manufactured in Iran, however.
After a rocket fired at Camp Victory on Sep. 11, 2007 killed one and wounded 11 others, U.S. officials told the news media that the command spokesman, Gen. Bergner, would display fragments of a 240mm rocket - complete with Iranian markings - at his next press briefing in order to "show the link between the Iranian weapons and the damage they are doing".
But Bergner admitted to the media that there were no discernible Iranian markings on the fragment, and that a number of countries manufacture 240mm rockets. He was able to assert only that ordnance experts "assess it is of [sic] consistent with the rockets of Iranian origin we have seen used in other attacks."
That was a very weak claim, because Bergner had not provided any evidence to the media that previous attacks had involved Iranian 240mm rockets either.
When the military headquarters at Camp Victory was hit by rocket fire last Oct. 12, officials admitted that it was 107mm rockets, not 240mm rockets that had been used.
Gen. David Petraeus insisted last October that there is "absolutely no question" that Iran is providing RPG-29 rocket-propelled grenade launchers to Iraqi Shiite groups. But RPG-29s are manufactured by Russia, not Iran. Syria was known to have purchased large quantities of the RPG-29 in 1999-2000. Both the Israeli newspaper Haaretz and the Beirut-based defence monthly Defense 21 have confirmed that the RPG-29s used by Hezbollah in 2006 were Russian-made weapons obtained via Syria.
In weapons caches reported from Shiite locations, not a single RPG-29 has been identified. Of the 160 RPG launchers reported in Mahdi Army caches, along with 800 RPG missiles, none were identified as Iranian, although some were identified as being Soviet-made. Only 11 were reported to be RPG-7s - a type of launcher that is made by Russia and China as well as Iran and used by 40 countries around the world.
Gareth Porter is an historian and national security policy analyst. The paperback edition of his latest book, "Perils of Dominance: Imbalance of Power and the Road to War in Vietnam", was published in 2006.