BAGHDAD — A series of conflicts with insurgent groups along Iran's borders may be impelling Tehran to back its own allies in Iraq in what it regards as a proxy war with the U.S., according to security experts and officials in the U.S., Iran and Iraq.
Dozens of Iranian officials, members of the security forces and insurgents belonging to Kurdish, Arab Iranian and Baluch groups have died in the fighting in recent years. It now appears to be heating up once again after an unusually cold and snowy winter.
In recent weeks, Iranians have begun the now-routine bombardment of suspected rebel Iranian Kurd positions in northern Iraq, and guerrillas have claimed incursions into northwestern Iran.
Some Iranians blamed Sunni Arab radicals for an explosion Saturday that killed 12 and injured 202 at a gathering where a preacher criticized the Wahhabi form of Islam that inspires Osama bin Laden.
None of the groups appear to pose a serious threat to Iran, but Tehran regards them as Washington's allies in an effort to pressure it to scale back its nuclear program and withhold support for militant groups fighting Israel. American and Iraqi officials in turn accuse Iran of supporting Shiite Muslim militias and other militant groups in Iraq to keep the U.S. preoccupied and the Baghdad government weak.
Although a U.S. intelligence estimate in December undercut claims that Iran has a secret nuclear weapons program and appeared to lower the possibility of a direct military conflict over Iran's uranium enrichment operations, tensions over Iraq have increased. U.S. officials accuse Iran of backing Shiite militias close to cleric Muqtada Sadr that fought Iraqi government forces to a standstill in Basra and Baghdad two weeks ago.
Analysts say the anti-Iranian groups are tempting assets for the U.S. They say it would be a surprise if the groups were not receiving U.S. funding, but that the strategy would probably not work.
"It will give more encouragement to Iran's hard-liners to step up their own efforts to assist anti-American forces in Iraq and Afghanistan," said Bruce Riedel, a former CIA analyst now at the Brookings Institution, a Washington think tank.
Among the most active groups is the Party for Free Life in Kurdistan, known by its Kurdish acronym, PEJAK. It has hundreds of well-trained fighters along with camps in northern Iraq.
Iranian soldiers guarding the border are sometimes ambushed by PEJAK fighters. Iran responds with artillery attacks that send Iraqi villagers scurrying for cover. Border skirmishes last summer and fall between Iranian security forces and PEJAK left dozens dead on both sides.
PEJAK emerged this decade as an Iranian offshoot of the Kurdistan Workers Party, or PKK, an armed group formed to fight a separatist war against the Turkish government.
Former members say PEJAK was meant to circumvent Western restrictions on contacts with the PKK, which has been labeled a terrorist organization by the U.S. State Department and the European Union.
"The PKK wanted to have a relationship with America, so it formed and used PEJAK," said Mamand Rozhe, a former commander who defected from the group four years ago.
U.S. military officials visited PEJAK's camps in northern Iraq just after the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, said Osman Ocalan, a brother of the PKK's imprisoned leader and a founder of PEJAK.
"Since the beginning, we thought we would get the American help," said Ocalan, who left the group two years ago. "And it's a good relationship now. . . . They are in talks with each other, and there is some military assistance."
Ocalan and others say U.S. help has included foodstuffs, economic assistance, medical supplies and Russian military equipment, some of it funneled through nonprofit groups. Every two or three months, U.S. military vehicles can be seen entering PKK and PEJAK strongholds, Ocalan said.
"There's no systematic relationship, no number to call," he said. "Americans do not intend to have an official relationship. Whenever there's any kind of question by the Turks, they can say we don't have a relationship."
A PEJAK leader, Abdul Rahman Haji-Ahmadi, was publicly given a cold shoulder when he went to Washington last summer.
PEJAK's activities may have created obstacles for those working inside Iran for peaceful change. Dozens of Kurdish activists in Iran have been thrown in jail on charges of supporting the rebel group.
"I think that on balance PEJAK does more harm than good," said Aso Saleh, an Iranian journalist and ethnic Kurd who fled his country after being charged with state security crimes that carry a possible death sentence.
"PEJAK's actions give the government the excuse to militarize the region," Saleh said. "It gives the Islamic Republic the excuse to crack down on civil opposition."