Wednesday 23 April 2003
WASHINGTON - The United States said on Wednesday Iran has been told not to try to interfere with Iraq's Shi'ite population and advance Iranian interests.
"We've made clear to Iran that we would oppose any outside interference in Iraq's road to democracy," said White House spokesman Ari Fleischer. "Infiltration of agents to destabilize the Shi'ite population would clearly fall into that category."
Fleischer said the message had been sent through "well-known channels of communication" with Iran, with which the United States does not have diplomatic relations.
Iran Is Said to Send Agents Into Southern Iraq
By Douglas Jehl
New York Times
Tuesday 22 April 2003
WASHINGTON Iranian-trained agents have crossed into southern Iraq since the fall of Saddam Hussein and are working in the cities of Najaf, Karbala and Basra to promote friendly Shiite clerics and advance Iranian interests, according to defense and other United States government officials.
The officials cited intelligence reports that said the agents include members of the military wing of an Iraqi exile group that operates from Iran with that government's training and support. Known as the Badr Brigade, the militia is the armed force of the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq, a Shiite group with headquarters in Tehran.
Other agents who have crossed into Iraq may include irregular members of a special unit of Iran's Revolutionary Guards, the officials said.
They said the infiltration from Iran was not unexpected, but they described it as a matter of significant concern at a time when outside powers are jockeying for influence to fill the political vacuum in Iraq. They said it suggests that Iran, which stayed on the sidelines during the American-led war in Iraq, may be trying to take a more assertive role in shaping developments in southern Iraq, whose population like that of Iran is composed overwhelmingly of Shiite Muslims.
"They are not looking to promote a democratic agenda," one military official said.
Southern Iraq has been a center of much rivalry and rancor in recent weeks, to an extent that has surprised officials in the Bush administration. The toppling of Iraq's Sunni-dominated government opened the lid to fierce disputes among various Shiite leaders about the proper place of religion and politics in the Iraq of the future.
Against that backdrop, administration officials said they were worried about meddling that might seek to promote an Iranian model of government, an Islamic republic headed by a Shiite cleric who functions as both the supreme religious as well as political leader.
One sign of that concern came on Monday, when Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld said at a Pentagon briefing that an Iranian model of government would not be consistent with the democratic and pluralistic principles the United States believes should be adopted by an emerging Iraqi government.
"I think there are an awful lot of people in Iran who feel that that small group of clerics that determine what takes place in that country is not their idea of how they want to live their lives," Mr. Rumsfeld said.
The major Shiite pilgrimage under way in the holy city of Karbala has helped to provide cover for the activities of Iranian agents, the government officials say. In the case of the Badr Brigade, some of whose members operate from bases in Iran, "what we've seen is that they shed their uniforms, put on civilian clothes, and disappear," a defense official said.
American soldiers, including members of the Special Forces, have been trying to keep watch on the Iranian border, the administration officials said, but the frontier is too long and porous to secure with any certainty.
The officials who described the intelligence reports said they did not characterize exactly what the Iranian agents might be doing or who they seemed to be supporting in southern Iraq. But the officials called attention to the close links between the Iranian government and the Iranian-based Iraqi opposition group, whose leader, Ayatollah Muhammad Bakir al-Hakim, has yet to return to Iraq.
In an interview with Iranian television last week after returning to Iraq, the group's deputy leader, Abdelaziz al-Hakim, said, "We will first opt for a national political system, but eventually the Iraqi people will seek an Islamic republic system." Mr. Hakim said in that interview that the will of Shiites for an Islamic system would prevail in democratic elections, since they are 60 percent of the population.
Until last week, some gunmen from the group's Badr Brigade maintained a visible presence in the town of Baquba, near the Iranian border, and in the larger city of Kut, according to American intelligence officials. American forces have since taken control of those cities, and the armed Badr forces have largely melted away.
The Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq is among several Iraqi opposition groups recognized by the Bush administration for inclusion in discussions about Iraq's future, even though some in the administration regard the group with deep suspicion because of its close ties with the Iranian government. The group's Badr Brigade, a force of about 10,000 men, received training and support from the Iranian government, American officials say.
Nevertheless, the group has declined two American invitations to participate in sessions intended to lead to the formation of an interim government. Hamid al-Bayati, the group's representative in London, said in a telephone interview today that the organization would not send an emissary to the next meeting, to be held in Baghdad on Saturday, because it mistrusted the American sponsorship role.
"If they are talking about democracy, they should leave the Iraqi people to organize themselves," Mr. Bayati said.
Ayatollah Hakim, from his base in Iran, called on Shiites last week to converge on the holy city of Karbala as part of the pilgrimage "to oppose a U.S.-led interim administration and defend Iraq's independence."
The leading Shiite cleric in southern Iraq is the Iranian-born Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sestani, who is 73, and whose base is in Najaf. Like many Iraqi clerics, he has a long record of opposition to what has become the Iranian model of Shiite jurisprudence, which grants clerics a pre-eminent political as well as religious role.
So far, Ayatollah Sestani's main rival has been Moktada al-Sadr, the son of Ayatollah Muhammad Sadiq al-Sadr, who was assassinated in 1999 on orders from Iraqi leaders. Some accounts of the killing earlier this month of an American-backed Shiite cleric, Sheik Abdel Majid al-Khoei, have implicated followers of Mr. Sadr, whose forces later surrounded the houses of Ayatollah Sestani and Ayatollah Said al-Hakim, nephew of the leader of the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq.
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