May 4, 2004 Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 173

Iran's Stirrings in Iraq

May 4, 2004 | By Dr. Nimrod Raphaeli*
Iraq, Iran | Inquiry & Analysis Series No. 173

With the downfall of Saddam Hussein, Iran can now pursue two principal objectives in Iraq: the first is to stir up problems for the Americans to keep them pinned down and divert their attention from its nuclear program. The second is to assert its influence over the Hawza, or the Shi'a religious centers in the two holy cities of Najaf and Karbala,and to prevent the emergence in these cities of an independent religious and spiritual leadership competing with the Iranian city of Qum.

In a Friday sermon on April 9, delivered at Tehran University amid shouts of "Death to America, Death to Israel," Expediency Council head Hashemi Rafsanjani said: "The present situation in Iraq represents a threat as well as an opportunity… It is a threat because the wounded American beast can take enraged actions, but it is also an opportunity to teach this beast a lesson so it won't attack another country." [1]

Open Borders - An Invitation to Subversion

It is commonly recognized that the coalition forces have been unable to fully control Iraq's borders with its neighbors, particularly with the antagonist neighbors - Iran and Syria. On Iraq's eastern and southern fronts, both Iranian intelligence agents and Iranian-sponsored terrorists have been able to enter Iraq at will. Many of them are easily disguised as religious pilgrims who, for the first time in years, are able to visit the two holy cities of Najaf and Karbala freely. For Shi'a Muslims, these pilgrimages are almost as theologically significant as a pilgrimage to Mecca.

Operating in a friendly milieu in southern Iraq, which is inhabited predominantly by Shi'a Muslims, Iranian intelligence officers have used a combination of incentives and coercion to widen the base of collaborators. According to the Iraqi daily Al-Nahdha, the Iraqi police have arrested many Iranians who are ostensibly pilgrims but, in reality, are intelligence operatives. The newspaper estimates the number of Iranian agents operating in Iraq at 14,000. They are penetrating the country's nascent security forces and taking advantage of the open distribution of books and literature. As a measure of their success to sell their revolutionary dogmas to the Iraqis, the newspaper's reporter has found that, for the first time in modern Iraqi history, a growing number of policemen have grown beards as a symbol of their identification with revolutionary Iran. Pilgrims are also known to have brought to Iraq hundreds of remote controls devices capable of activating explosives. [2]

Al-Sadr's Visit to Iran

The young Iraqi Shi'a revolutionary cleric and rabble rouser Muqtada Al-Sadr has visited Iran in 2004 as a guest of the Revolutionary Guard. During his visit, Al-Sadr met with Hashemi Rafsanjani, head of the Expediency Council, as well as the head of the revolutionary guard intelligence, Murtadha Radha'i, and the commander of the Al-Quds Army responsible for Iraqi affairs, Brig.-General Qassim Suleimani, and other government and religious leaders. [3]

Training Camps for Al-Sadr's Supporters

A source in the Al-Quds Army of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard revealed to the London daily Al-Sharq Al-Awsat information relating to the construction of three camps and training centers on the Iranian-Iraqi borders to train elements of the "Mehdi Army" founded by Muqtada Al-Sadr. The source estimated that between 800 and 1200 young supporters of Al-Sadr have received military training including guerilla warfare, the production of bombs and explosives, the use of small arms, reconnoitering, and espionage. The three camps were located in Qasr Shireen, ‘Ilam,and Hamid, bordering southern Iraq which is inhabited largely by Shi'a Muslims.

The newspaper also reported that the Iranian Embassy in Baghdad has distributed 400 satellite phones to supporters of Al-Sadr and to clerics and students at the A'thamiyya district of Baghdad, Al-Sadr City, and in Najaf, all of which are inhabited predominantly by Shi'a Muslims.

The Iranian source, known in Iraq as "Abu Hayder," confirmed that the intelligence service of the Revolutionary Guards has introduced to the Shi'a cities radio and TV broadcasting facilities which are used by Al-Sadr and his supporters. [4]

The source estimated the financial support to Al-Sadr in recent months have exceeded $80 million, in addition to the cost of training, equipment, and clothing of his supporters.

The source indicated that elements of the Al-Quds Army and the Revolutionary Guard Intelligence lead many of the operations directed against the coalition forces. These elements are also leading a campaign against the senior Shi'a clerics such as the Grand Ayatollah Ali Al-Sistani, Hussein Al-Sadr [Muqtada's uncle], Ayatollah Ishaq Al-Fayyadh, and others, because of their opposition to the concept of "the Rule of the Jurist" (Wilayat Al-Faqih), which is Khomeini's style of government. [5]

Iranian Intelligence Services in Iraq

An Iranian official known as Al-Haj Sa'idi, whowas previously in charge of the Iraqi desk in the Iranian intelligence services, spoke of a dense Iranian presence from the uppermost point in the north of Iraq to the lowest point. The Iranians can draw upon a large reservoir of potential agents from the Iraqi Shi'a but more so from the Iraqi-Iranian nationals who were expelled by Saddam Hussein to Iran and are now coming back to Iraq not only acting as agents but also representing a large reservoir of Shi'a voters who could tip the scale in favor of Al-Sadr in future elections in Iraq. These agents are suspected of assassinating the liberal Ayatollah Muhammad Baqir Al-Haqim, the former leader of the Supreme Council of the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI) and a former member of the Iraqi governing council, and were about to assassinate Grand Ayatollah Ali Al-Sistani, another moderate cleric, before their designs were exposed. [6]

Iranian Money to Support Secular Groups

The Iraqi daily Al-Zaman reported a secret investigation being carried out by the CPA and the Iraqi Governing Council on the flow of funds from Iran to secular groups. Meetings with such groups are also known to have taken place in various Gulf countries. While Iran has denied intervening in the internal affairs of Iraq, every available evidence suggests the contrary. [7]

In an article, Al-Zaman criticized Iran for allowing into Iraq members of Al-Qa'ida and of extremist Arab groups loyal to Tehran. It also criticized Iran's attempt to impose its control over the Iraqi Shi'a Islamic centers, and terrorize those who do not acquiesce. Further, the article referred to the smuggling of Iraqi oil, sheep and spare parts, and the destruction of the Iraqi economic infrastructure in the hands of organized Iranian gangs - criminal acts which, the paper argued could not have been carried out without explicit support of the Iranian authorities. The paper characterized Iranian policies as "nefarious and unfathomable." [8]

Hizbullah in Iraq

Another arm of Iran's intervention in Iraq is its proxy – Hizbullah.Accordingto the London daily Al-Hayat Iran sent 90 of its fighters to Iraq shortly after the fall of the Saddam regime. The presence of Hizbullah fighters in Iraq is meant to neutralize any attempt by the coalition forces to activate opposition to Iran from within Iraq. In the words of an Iraqi daily, Iran is telling Washington, "We can help but we can also cause harm." [9] In the meantime, seeking more controversy, Muqtada Al-Sadr announced that he was in alliance with Hizbullah, which has Iranian support, and with the Palestinian Hamas. This alliance was broadly criticized by the Iraqi press.

Pilgrims Inundating Holy Sites

With borders wide open and with no requirement for either a passport or a visa, 150 buses arrive daily in Karbala. The number of visitors was much larger during 'Ashura, when the Shi'a Muslims mourn the death of Hussein, Prophet Muhammad's grandson, or during other religious holidays. Al-Hayat wrote about "black spots" moving from one place to another preceded by someone carrying a flag as is common in tourist groups. The rotating chairman of the Iraqi Governing Council, Muhsin Abd Al-Hamid said Iraq has authorized the visit by 1000-2000, but in fact 10,000 Iranians cross the borders daily. [10]

However, the borders are, in essence, open in only one direction. The Iraqi daily Baghdad writes about the unhappiness of many Iraqis that Iranians can enter the country without passports – and, in some cases, can even bring in drugs which they exchange for fabrics and food. By contrast, an Iraqi citizen has to pay $140 to obtain a visa to enter Iran. [11] According to Iraqi estimates 10 percent of the 5 million Iranian visitors have managed to register as Iraqis and are able to vote in future elections. [12]

Iranian Flags in Karbala

In a piece titled "Do Not be Surprised to See the Iranian Flags over Karbala," the front page editor of the Iraqi daily Al-Mashriq wrote that it is one thing for the Iranians to visit the holy sites or to organize exhibitions in Baghdad to distribute pictures of their religious symbols (referring perhaps to the photographs of Ayatallah Khomeini); it is altogether a different thing to raise the Iranian flags by the side of holy sites or for the Persian language to become the spoken language of the people of Karbala. The editor complained about Iranians who bring drugs or who smuggle Iraqi antiquities, heritage and food. For the newspaper, these events represent "a cultural invasion." [13]

Al-Sistani Issues a Fatwa Calling for Calm

The recent rebellion by Muqtada Al-Sadr and his threat to use his militia to rain "the fire of hell" upon any attempt by the coalition forces to enter Najaf and capture him, has been denounced by the Shi'a religious establishment in Najaf and Karbala. They have called upon Al-Sadr to take his forces out of these two cities to save their inhabitants "death, suffering, fire, and smoke." [14] More importantly, the senior Shi'a cleric, Grand Ayatollah Al-Sistani issued a fatwa forbidding anything that would lead to the disruption of peace. The fatwa reads: "In the name of the Almighty - We denounce the methods of the occupation forces in dealing with current incidents, as we denounce the violation on public and private properties and anything that disrupts the peace and prevents Iraqi officials from carrying out their duties in serving the people. We call for treating these matters with wisdom and through peaceful means and the avoidance of any escalating measure that leads to more chaos and bloodshed. It is incumbent on the political and social forces to participate actively to put an end to these tragedies and Allah is the Source of Success." [15]

Al-Sistani believes that in free elections in Iraq, the Shi'a will gain a majority which will lead them to head the post-occupation elected government, and he is not interested in rocking the boat. He sees in Al-Sadr not only a challenge to his authority but a disruptive element that could jeopardize the chances of the Shi'a to reach their goal. It is not surprising that he has refused to meet with Al-Sadr despite the latter's many appeals.

Similarly, it was reported from the city of Qum, the Shi'a religious center in Iran, that Ayatollah Kadhem Hussein Al-Ha'iri, who is considered Muqtada Al-Sadr's spiritual father, has expressed his displeasure with Al-Sadr's conduct and for failing to coordinate with Al-Ha'iri's office in Najaf. [16] In addition, religious and tribal leaders in the Najaf area have denounced the heavy-handed tactics used by the Al-Mehdi Army to impose its will on the local inhabitants. [17]

It is too early to tell how the rebellion led by Al-Sadr will end. It is clear that if the sovereignty of Iraq is to be transferred on June 30 the militias will have to cease to exist. Failing to do so will raise the danger that the various ethnic groups and sub-groups might resort to the use of force to attain their goals. The Iranians could help for a price but the CPA is on record against any Iranian involvement in the affairs of Iraq. [18] Hence, other means for removing Al-Sadr and his militia from two holy Shi'a cities of Najaf and Karbala may be inevitable.

* Nimrod Raphaeli is a Senior Analyst at MEMRI.

[1] Al-Siyassah (Kuwait), April 10, 2004.

[2] Al-Nahdha (Iraq), February 17, 2004.

[3] Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), October 8, 2003.

[4] Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), April 9, 2004.

[5] Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), April 9, 2004.

[6] Al-Furat (Baghdad), April 4, 2004.

[7] Al-Zaman (Iraq), April 17, 2004.

[8] Al-Zaman (Iraq), November 11, 2003.

[9] Al-Hayat (London), November 25, 2003.

[10] Al-Sabah (Iraq), February 23, 2004.

[11] Baghdad (Iraq), February 23, 2004.

[12] Al-Zaman (Iraq), April 14, 2004.

[13] Al-Mashreq (Iraq) February 17, 2004.

[14] Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), April 28, 2004.

[15] Al-Ittihad (Baghdad), April 12, 2004.

[16] Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), April 30, 2004.

[17] Al-Sharq Al-Awsat (London), April 30, 2004.

[18] See the interview with Ambassador Bremer on Al-Jazeera TV, April 26, 2004.

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