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The Iranian factor in Iraq insurgency
San Francisco Chronicle


September 07, 2005

For 29 months, U.S. troops in Iraq have battled an elusive and increasingly violent insurgency that has eroded domestic support for America's involvement there.

Now the United States says it faces another enemy in Iraq: Iran, the country's Shiite neighbor, which President Bush once called part of an "axis of evil."

Senior Bush administration officials have gone so far as to publicly accuse Iran of helping to arm the insurgents and of undermining the government. But while analysts differ on the degree to which Iran is deliberately subverting U.S. policy, they agree that Tehran has become much more entwined in Iraqi affairs since the rise to power of fellow Shiites there.

"They want to clearly influence the evolution of events there," said James Noyes, a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford University and a former international security expert at the Department of Defense under former Presidents Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford.

The question is how deeply is Iran involved in Iraq, and how far is it prepared to go to damage U.S. interests there?

Some analysts say that, at the very least, Iran is seeking to make America's involvement in the war-ravaged country even more difficult. "They don't want the U.S. to have an easy time with it," said Abbas Milani, an expert on Iran at the Hoover Institution. "They want to see the United States weakened (and) embarrassed."

In the past two weeks, senior U.S. officials, including Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and U.S. ambassador to Iraq Zalmay Khalilzad, stated that Iran has been smuggling truckloads of weapons and explosives into Iraq.

"There are Iranian activities that undermine the current system," Khalilzad told ABC's "This Week" after U.S. troops announced that they had seized sophisticated bombs near the southern stretch of Iraq's border with Iran.

Rumsfeld called the smuggling "a problem for the coalition forces ... a problem for the international community, and ultimately ... a problem for Iran. "

British military commanders in Iraq and Iraqi officials are skeptical of the claims. Royal Marines Maj. Gen. Jim Dutton, commander of multinational forces in southeastern Iraq, said there was no proof that the weapons came from Iran, adding that there was "a lot of speculation" and "not many facts" about Iranian involvement with the insurgency.

Iraq's interior minister, Bayan Jabr, said the reports were "very much exaggerated," and Iran's defense minister, Ali Shamkhani, last week denied his country's "alleged involvement in bomb explosions."

Other experts point out that it is unlikely that Iran would be fueling an insurgency that is led primarily by Sunnis - traditional opponents of Shiites - and also one that is killing numerous Iraqi Shiites as well as U. S. and Iraqi security forces.

But at a time when the new, hard-line government in Tehran refuses to abandon its nuclear program, the United States has reasons to be alarmed by Iran's growing involvement in Iraq, say analysts.

"It was probably no accident that Rumsfeld chose to make his statement just days after the new Iranian President (Mahmoud) Ahmadinejad was inaugurated and nuclear talks seem to be breaking down," said Michael O'Hanlon, who heads the Iraq Index project at the Brookings Institution, a Washington think tank.

It is easy for Tehran to bolster its position in Iraq. Both the Iraqi parliament and government - elected in Jan. 30 balloting in which the majority Shiite population voted in far greater numbers than the minority Sunnis - are dominated by Shiite politicians and parties with close ties to Iran.

Iraq's Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari lived in exile in Iran for almost a decade. Iraq's president, secular Kurd Jalal Talabani, received money and political support from Iran for years while he ruled half of the Kurdish semi-autonomous region in northern Iraq. The supreme religious leader of Iraq's Shiites, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, who recently held talks with Iran's foreign minister, was born in Iran and spent years in exile there.

The Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), created by Iraqi expatriates in Iran in the 1980s, and another Iran-linked Shiite party, Dawa, won the overwhelming majority of the seats in Iraq's National Assembly last January. SCIRI's military arm, the Badr Brigade, was formed and trained in Iran in the 1980s. Although most of its fighters have now joined Iraq's nascent police and military, their alliances may still lie with SCIRI and Iran, said Noyes and other analysts.

Already, Tehran has promised $1 billion in financial aid that Iraqi officials say they will use to rebuild schools, hospitals and libraries. It has negotiated lucrative deals, ranging from pipeline construction and arrangements for Iraq to export oil through Iranian ports to supplying parts of Iraq with electricity and training some of Iraq's nascent military in Iran - an agreement that made Washington so angry it pressured Iraqi officials to rescind the deal last month.

"Iran is seeking security, regional influence ... and a market for (its) production," said Majid Mohammadi, an Iranian sociologist who is currently a resident in the Democracy, Development and Rule of Law project at Stanford University.


Distributed by Scripps Howard News Service,

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