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Official Discusses Middle East Conflicts, Conditions

By Jim Garamone
American Forces Press Service

WASHINGTON, Aug. 7, 2006 – The activities in the Hezbollah-Hamas battlespace are being manipulated by Iran, directed by Syria and executed by Hamas in Palestine and Hezbollah in Lebanon, a senior U.S. military official, speaking on background, said today.

The official also spoke about conditions in Iraq and Afghanistan.

He said three major movements are coursing through the Middle East. The first is Iran’s posturing for leadership in the region.

Iran’s prominence in the Israeli-Hezbollah conflict, the official said, points to the problem a nuclear-armed Iran would pose to the region and world. Iran’s sponsorship of Hezbollah and its moves to gain influence in Shiia areas of Iraq and other areas of the Middle East and Persian Gulf are designed to gain time for the Iranian nuclear program, and also to increase Iranian regional power, he explained.

This does not mean Sunni extremists – al Qaeda and associated movements – have quit the field. The extremists, the official said, are the second movement in the region.

He said that while the Sunni terrorist groups have not increased their levels of activity, they are looking for mergers with other groups and ways to increase their value on the global stage. He said he expects the Sunni groups to make a statement with an attack outside the Middle East, but that the statement also could come as an attack on oil infrastructure in the region. Al Qaeda did launch an attack on Saudi Arabia’s oil infrastructure last year, he noted.

The third big issue the official cited is the Arab-Israeli conflict. Hezbollah, Lebanon, Israel and Palestine lead the news, he said, and the world must calm the region. When the peace process moves forward it seems to make the region in general a bit easier to deal with, he said. When the process breaks down, the region becomes very difficult not only for the United States, but also for the world to handle.

U.S. policy in the Middle East hinges on stability in Iraq and Afghanistan, the official said. The past seven months in Iraq, he noted, have seen the major problem shift from the insurgency to sectarian violence. Concern about this activity was the impetus for extending the 172nd Stryker Brigade Combat Team for up to 120 days in Iraq, the official said. The unit has done an excellent job in Mosul and brings an expanded capability for melding operations with intelligence, he explained. The official said the American units mostly will perform outer cordon duty for Iraqi units, as they did during the 2005 elections.

Coalition and Iraqi units are making good progress against Sunni death cells – mostly al Qaeda in Iraq affiliates – the official said. They also are making some progress against Shiia death cells; a number of raids to take down these cells have taken place in the past few days, the official said. Coalition forces will engage in operations in Baghdad, he said, but they will be limited to the more precise operations against various death squad elements. He stressed that any solution must incorporate economic and political solutions in addition to military force.

In Afghanistan, the transition of the southern region to NATO’s International Security Assistance Force continues. The Taliban are contesting the provinces in the south, most notably Helmand province. The official said he expects an uptick in Taliban activity in the east, where U.S. forces are now mostly concentrated. Even there, the situation is complex, the official said. Along with the Taliban causing problems, drug lords, tribal conflicts and territorial fights pose additional challenges. Still, the official said, he doesn’t foresee anything unhinging coalition efforts in Afghanistan.

A danger does exist, however, that extremist ideology – Iranian or Sunni –might become mainstream in the region, the official acknowledged. If that happens, he said, either the region will move into a major war within itself or one of those two groups will mount a major action against the West.

The West must expose the enemies for what they are, the official said. Once that happens, he said, no one will want to follow the groups’ ideology.

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