What, exactly, is the Quds Force--the paramilitary wing of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC)--doing in Iraq? The Bush administration maintains that the group is trying to destabilize the country, supplying explosives that are being used to kill U.S. troops in Iraq. On the other hand, the latest issue of Newsweek reports that the two IRGC officials who were arrested by the United States in Iraq last December were actually invited in by the Iraqi government, which asked for their help in cracking down on Moqtada Al Sadr's militia:

On the night they were detained, the two Iranians had met with Hadi al-Ameri, head of the Badr Organization, once the militia of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI). Ameri also heads up the security committee in the Iraqi National Assembly. The two officials had come, Ameri told NEWSWEEK, to discuss security issues. Ameri said two top Iraqi government officials, Deputy Prime Minister Barham Salih and national-security adviser Mowaffaq al-Rubaie, had asked the Iranian government to help rein in the Mahdi Army, the rival Shiite militia directed by radical cleric Moqtada al-Sadr that is believed to be responsible for death squads and other sectarian violence, as well as attacks on U.S. troops.

Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki "wanted Iran's help and said you can influence this issue," Ameri said in an interview. "This led to the Iranians sending the group with the diplomatic passports." He added: "They had a meeting with me and we talked about how to put pressure on the Jaish Mahdi [Mahdi Army] not to attack Sunnis ... how to prevent the Jaish Mahdi from working against the government and not to raise their weapons illegally." ...

The upshot is that while the American military is blaming the Quds Force and IRGC for all sorts of misdeeds, the highest officials in the U.S.-backed Iraqi government appear to be buying weapons from them and asking for their help on security issues.

It's possible that this account isn't exactly correct--it's not hard, after all, to think of reasons why the head of an Iranian-backed Shiite militia would try to cast the best possible light on the IRGC's presence in Iraq--but it does raise a few questions. If Iran was, in fact, working to play a constructive role in Iraq, by helping the government clamp down on Sadr and rein in the Mahdi Army's attacks on Sunnis, then does it really make sense for the Bush administration to ratchet up tensions with Tehran right now?

On another note, there seems to be much wrangling of late over whether the Iranian government knew that the Quds Force was sending weapons into Iraq. Here's Newsweek's take: "It is true that the Quds Force is supposed to be under the supervision of [Iran's Supreme Leader Ali] Khamenei, who approves their overall strategy together with Rahim Safavi, the commander of the IRGC. But because Khamenei is not a military official, he's not thought to be apprised of every operation." So it's not quite clear.

--Bradford Plumer