Iran-trained operatives in Iraq, U.S. says

Intelligence indicates Tehran may be trying to influence Iraqi Shiites

Postwar Iraq


WASHINGTON - Iranian-trained operatives have crossed into southern Iraq since the fall of President Saddam Hussein and are working in the cities of Najaf, Karbala and Basra to promote friendly Shiite clerics and advance Iranian interests, according to defense and other U.S. government officials.

The officials cited intelligence reports that said the operatives include members of the military wing of an Iraqi exile group that operates from Iran with that government's training and support. Known as the Badr Brigade, the militia is the armed force of the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq, a Shiite Muslim group with headquarters in Tehran.

Other operatives who have crossed into Iraq may include irregular members of a special unit of Iran's Revolutionary Guards, the officials said.

They said the infiltration from Iran was not unexpected, but they described it as a matter of significant concern at a time when outside powers are jockeying for influence to fill the political vacuum in Iraq. They said it suggests that Iran, which stayed on the sidelines during the U.S.-led war in Iraq, may be trying to take a more assertive role in shaping developments in southern Iraq, whose population - like that of Iran - is composed overwhelmingly of Shiite Muslims.

"They are not looking to promote a democratic agenda," one military official said.

Southern Iraq has been a center of much rivalry and rancor in recent weeks, to an extent that has surprised officials in the Bush administration. The toppling of Iraq's Sunni-dominated government opened the lid to fierce disputes among various Shiite leaders about the proper place of religion and politics in the Iraq of the future.

Against that backdrop, Bush administration officials said they were worried about meddling that might seek to promote an Iranian model of government, an Islamic republic headed by a Shiite cleric who functions as both the supreme religious and political leader.

U.S. soldiers, including members of the Special Forces, have been trying to keep watch on the Iranian border, administration officials said, but the frontier is too long and porous to secure with certainty.

The officials who described the intelligence reports said the reports did not characterize exactly what the Iranian operatives might be doing or who they seemed to be supporting in southern Iraq. But the officials called attention to the close links between the Iranian government and the Iranian-based Iraqi opposition group, whose leader, Ayatollah Mohammed Bakir al-Hakim, has yet to return to Iraq.

In an interview with Iranian television last week after returning to Iraq, the group's deputy leader, Abdelaziz al-Hakim, said, "We will first opt for a national political system, but eventually the Iraqi people will seek an Islamic republic system."

Hakim said the will of Shiites for an Islamic system would prevail in democratic elections, because they comprise 60 percent of the population.

Until last week, gunmen from the group's Badr Brigade maintained a visible presence in the town of Baquba, near the Iranian border, and in the larger city of Kut, according to U.S. intelligence officials. American forces have since taken control of those cities, and the Badr forces have largely melted away.

The Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq is among several Iraqi opposition groups recognized by the Bush administration for inclusion in discussions about Iraq's future, even though some in the administration regard the group with deep suspicion because of its close ties with the Iranian government. The group's Badr Brigade, a force of about 10,000 men, received training and support from the Iranian government, U.S. officials say.

Nevertheless, the group has declined two U.S. invitations to participate in sessions designed to lead to the formation of an interim government. Hamid al-Bayati, the group's representative in London, said yesterday that the organization would not send an emissary to the next meeting, to be held Saturday in Baghdad, because it mistrusts the American sponsorship role.

"If they are talking about democracy, they should leave the Iraqi people to organize themselves," Bayati said.

Bayati said no members of the Badr Brigade had crossed from Iran into Iraq since the end of the fighting. He said several hundred members of the militia already at a remote base in northern Iraq had stayed in place, in keeping with an agreement between the group and U.S. emissaries, who had asked that the militia not join in attacks against Iraqi forces.

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