U.S. warns Iran against interference

New signs raise concerns about obstacles to stable, democratic postwar Iraq

Postwar Iraq

April 24, 2003|By Mark Matthews | Mark Matthews,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - Warning Iran against "interfering" in Iraq, the White House expressed concern yesterday that Tehran is trying to influence fellow Shiite Muslims to oppose efforts to build a democratic government in Baghdad.

Administration officials say they worry that the new political and religious mobilization of Shiites in Iraq contains hidden pockets of danger. They suspect that Iran has sent an unknown number of agents across the border with the aim of expanding its own influence with Iraq's majority Shiite population.

"We have made clear to Iran that we would oppose any outside organization's interference in Iraq, interfering with their road to democracy," said Ari Fleischer, the White House spokesman. "Infiltration of agents to destabilize the Shia population would clearly fall into that category, and that is a position that we have made clear to the government of Iran."

President Bush, himself proudly religious, has hailed the processions by hundreds of thousands of pilgrims to the holy city of Karbala in southern Iraq. He said this week that reports about the sudden freedom enjoyed by Shiites in Iraq "made my day." Iraqi Shiites were violently repressed under Saddam Hussein's regime.

But the new signs of interference by Iran have raised concerns about the obstacles to a stable and democratic postwar Iraq. They are also straining a difficult relationship between Washington and Tehran, which have had no regular direct contact since diplomatic ties were severed after the Islamic revolution in 1979.

Last year, Bush labeled Iran part of an "axis of evil," along with Iraq and North Korea, and his administration considers Iran the world's foremost sponsor of terrorism as well as an aspiring nuclear-weapons state.

Iran, which has long sought pre-eminence in the Persian Gulf region, now finds itself uncomfortably surrounded by U.S. forces in Turkey, Iraq and Afghanistan. Asked in a recent interview whether Iran had "nothing to fear" from the United States, Secretary of State Colin L. Powell replied, "I wouldn't go quite that far."

"We will protect our interests if it has to do with the war against terrorism," Powell said.

Some Washington hawks hope that the toppling of Hussein's regime in Iraq will hasten the fall of Iran's anti-Western theocratic rulers. At the same time, U.S. officials do not deny reports that they engage in periodic contacts with Iranian officials through private channels.

Fleischer's public warning yesterday indicated, though, that the White House feared that its private communications were not producing results.

The White House spokesman did not say which of several Shiite groups that are starting to assume local leadership roles in Iraq might include Iranian agents.

During Hussein's rule in Iraq, Iran became home to many Iraqi Shiite refugees. Its clerical-led government allied itself with a militant exile group, the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq, led by Ayatollah Mohammed Bakr al-Hakim.

The council's armed Badr Brigade stayed out of the fighting during the Iraq war, but it firmly opposes the U.S. occupation. Hakim has warned that Iraqis would be justified in taking up arms to prevent a long-term U.S. presence, and last week he boycotted a U.S.-sponsored meeting to develop a new Iraqi leadership.

During the religious processions, some Shiites have advocated an Islamic state, similar to Iran's. Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld discouraged this idea during a news conference Monday but was careful not to appear to be dictating Iraq's new form of government.

Rumsfeld said the administration hoped Iraq's government would be democratic, with freedom of speech, press and religion. He added, though, that "in the last analysis, the Iraqi people are going to decide what that form is."

Administration officials denied reports that they were unprepared for the size and strength of the Shiite demonstrations in Iraq. They said the Iranian influence so far did not appear to be a major political factor or a threat to U.S. troops. But military and intelligence officials say they are watching for any signs that Iran is promoting anti-American activity.

"The Iraqi Shiite community is a very capable community, a very large community and a very diverse community," Fleischer said. "Any efforts or anybody outside of Iraq to try to create an outsider's version of what should take place for the Iraqi people, by the Iraqi people, will not have much chance of success."

The commander of the U.S.-led ground forces in Iraq, Army Lt. Gen. David McKiernan, told reporters: "Right now, the Shiites and any Iranian-influenced Shiite actions are not an overt threat to coalition forces. But we are watching all of these competing interests."

Some analysts suggested, though, that the Shiite demonstrations and the signs of Iranian meddling illustrated the emerging problems that would make the U.S. occupation of Iraq a hazardous enterprise.

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