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THE CONFLICT IN IRAQ: THE IRAN FACTOR

Iranian sees border danger

The consul in Basra says the chaos is crossing into his nation -- a flow of violence opposite to that claimed by the U.S.

January 23, 2007|Borzou Daragahi | Times Staff Writer

BAGHDAD — A ranking Iranian diplomat on Monday said the chaos of Iraq was spilling over into his country, spreading a destabilizing influence to its Arab population.

The assertion by Mohammad Reza Baghban, the Iranian consul in the southern Iraqi city of Basra, runs counter to the Bush administration analysis that violence and instability flow the opposite direction -- from Tehran to Baghdad.

"If you take a look at the discoveries of the Iranian police, you will find arms, ammunitions and other illegal equipment smuggled from Iraq to Khuzistan and other Iranian provinces," Baghban said in a rare interview.

Khuzistan is an oil-rich, ethnically Arab province in mostly Persian Iran that has experienced outbreaks of violence over the last few years by suspected separatists.

Allegations that weapons flow from Iran into Iraq are unsubstantiated, despite a strong presence of British and American troops in the border region of southern Iraq, Baghban added.

"The Americans are used to speaking nonsense and none of their allegations are documented," Baghban said. "Can they offer any evidence of what they say?"

Baghban said American and British troops stationed at the Mehran and Shalamcheh border outposts have had ample opportunity to monitor the frontier between Iran and southern Iraq, which is dominated by Shiite Muslim militias and political parties with roots in Iran.

Iran and the U.S. have been locked in a decades-long cold war that has heated up recently over allegations of Iranian interference in Iraq as well as Tehran's nuclear ambitions. U.S. troops this month stormed an Iranian government office in the northern Iraqi city of Irbil, arresting half a dozen officials on suspicion of aiding armed groups. Five of them remained in custody Monday.

Baghban said he had no fear that American or British troops would raid his consulate, which enjoys a higher degree of protection under international law. He added that his staff maintains relations with local British consular officials.

Besides its embassy in Baghdad, Iran operates consulates in the predominantly Shiite cities of Basra and Karbala, and two lesser-rank offices in Iraqi Kurdistan. All the locations, except Baghdad, are areas with ethnic and historic links to predominantly Shiite Iran.

The diplomatic stations have granted tens of thousands of visas to Iraqis, even as Americans permit only tiny numbers of Iraqis to travel to the U.S., Baghban said. In Basra alone, 10,000 to 30,000 visas are issued every month, he said.

"They travel to Iran for different purposes like pilgrimage, visiting their relatives or for medical treatment," Baghban said. "There also are Iranians coming to Iraq for pilgrimage, commerce or family visits, and they might pass by Basra. But currently, they are not numerous."

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daragahi@latimes.com

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