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Tehran Is Quietly Making Its Agenda Heard in Iraq

Iran's sway over an exile group aids the Islamic Republic's bid to spread its brand of Shiite Islam.

May 10, 2003|Michael Slackman | Times Staff Writer

BAGHDAD — As U.S. troops were helping to pull down a towering statue of Saddam Hussein in Baghdad last month, a group of fighters on a military base just across the border in Iran was assembled and given its next mission:

Infiltrate Iraq and spread pro-Iranian ideas.

The men were Iraqi exiles who belong to the Badr Brigade, an Iranian-backed militia that is part of the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq. They were told to shave off their beards and change into civilian clothing. Their Iranian documents were taken away, and each one was given a forged Iraqi identification.

Then they were put on buses and shuttled into Iraq.

"They told us our task will be to teach our families Shiite teachings," said Emad Hussein Ali Safi, a member of the Badr Brigade for 11 years who gave a detailed account of his years in Iran and his final orders before returning to Baghdad. "They spoke about a Shiite state. They said Iran should be Iraq's reference, its symbol."

The Supreme Council, which has been based in Tehran for more than two decades, all the while supported and funded by the Iranian government, is vying for a role in postwar Iraq. Its leader, Ayatollah Mohammed Bakr Hakim, crossed the border back into Iraq early today.

Iran's influence over the Supreme Council is just one way the Islamic Republic has taken steps to become a significant force in Iraq. Operating behind the scenes, Iran is an invisible hand pushing its agenda, quietly but effectively making its case house by house.

Although the government of Iran no longer has a formal policy to export its Islamic Revolution, hard-liners still control the country, and religious institutions have a profound influence there. And the hard-liners' goal still is to see their brand of Shiite governance spread to Iraq and beyond.

And a key obstacle in Iraq has been removed: When Hussein was ousted, his security services -- which counted Iran as their main enemy -- also collapsed. With the exception of U.S. troops, already spread thin, and threats emanating from Washington, there is no strong countervailing force to any covert efforts Iran might undertake.

The United States has warned Iran not to meddle in Iraq's internal affairs. Two weeks ago, White House Press Secretary Ari Fleischer said the Bush administration had "made clear to Iran that we would oppose any outside organization's interference in Iraq."

Washington also is concerned that Iran, which the U.S. asserts has long supported terrorism, could export those destabilizing elements to its neighbor.

Testifying before the House in March, J. Cofer Black, the State Department's top counter-terrorism official, said the Bush administration "has looked upon Iran as a serious threat to the United States, as one of, if not the, primary terrorist threat with capabilities to match."

Iran is influencing Iraq's internal dynamics in many ways, from fatwas, or religious edicts, calling on the Shiite majority to seize the day, to religious students returning and opening their own mosques after years of study in Iran.

Safi, for example, was one of an estimated 15,000 members of the Badr Brigade who have returned to Iraq. He said he and his colleagues underwent years of intense religious and political indoctrination in Iran and that he has no doubt that many brigade members are following their orders.

"A lot of them take this very seriously," said Safi, 50, a Sunni Muslim who said he joined the brigade so he could get out of an Iranian prisoner of war camp. "This is their task now, to spread Iranian ideas."

Many thousands of Iraqis had fled to Iran over the years, some seeking escape from religious persecution, others exiled for political reasons. Thousands have now returned and, whether under orders or out of conviction, bring with them a strong affinity for an Iranian-style Islamic theocracy.

Sheik Kriadh Karashi fled Iraq in 1997 when security police tried to arrest him. He slipped out a window in his house and made it to Iran, where he said he received a salary to study religion. He returned after the regime fell and has opened a mosque in his neighborhood in west Baghdad.

He said that some religious students studying in Iraq continue to receive salaries from Iranian sources.

At the same time, Iran is for the first time able to broadcast its Arabic-language television and radio shows into Iraq without them being jammed, and in many homes it is the only television that can be received. The news content is often anti-American.

"The people of Iraq should determine their next government," a political analyst said on a recent program. "The Shiites were oppressed before.... It is their right to demonstrate that the U.S. Army should leave now that they have finished their task."

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