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Iraq: Pentagon Reassessing Violence As Shi'a Leaders, Iran Deny Roles

  • Ron Synovitz

Recent comments by U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld indicate the factors contributing to violence in Iraq may be more complicated than the U.S. previously thought. Rumsfeld told journalists this week that the proliferation of violence is not caused exclusively by loyalists of Saddam Hussein's Ba'ath Party. He suggested some attacks may be the work of Iranian-backed Iraqi Shi'a who had opposed Hussein, as well as what he called "criminals" and "foreign terrorists."

Prague, 2 July 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Officials at the Pentagon appear to be reassessing their views about violence and lawlessness in Iraq.

The rethink comes amid a proliferation of guerrilla-style attacks against U.S. and British forces. Thirty-one coalition soldiers (25 U.S. and six British) have been killed in hostile acts since U.S. President George W. Bush declared the end of major combat operations on 1 May. An attack yesterday on a U.S. military convoy killed one soldier. Five others were wounded in other attacks. Iraqi infrastructure, such as gas pipelines, also have been targeted.

Until this week, Washington had blamed these attacks primarily on "criminals" and Iraqis still loyal to deposed leader Saddam Hussein's ousted Ba'ath Party.

On 30 June, U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld expanded upon those remarks, saying the violence involves disparate groups and individuals who are not coordinating their efforts. He suggested these groups include Iranian-backed Iraqi Shi'a who had opposed Hussein's rule.

He said the violence involved "Looters, criminals, remnants of the Ba'athist regime, foreign terrorists who came in to assist [the Ba'athists] and try to harm the coalition forces, and those influenced by Iran. I would say that those are five different things. They are all slightly different in why they're there and what they're doing. That doesn't make it anything like a guerrilla war or an organized resistance."

Rumsfeld's remarks once again highlighted Washington's concern about an Iranian-backed group called the Badr Brigade.

The Badr Brigade was created as the militant wing of the main Iraqi Shi'a opposition group -- the Supreme Council of the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI) -- whose members fled to Iran under Hussein's rule.

In late March, Rumsfeld warned the Badr Brigade that its members would be considered "combatants" if they interfered with coalition operations or were seen carrying weapons inside Iraq.

Rumsfeld has described the Badr Brigade as being "trained, equipped, and directed by Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard." He also has said the U.S.-led coalition would hold the Iranian government responsible for any actions of the Badr Brigade inside Iraq.

However, Rumsfeld stressed in March that he had no evidence linking the Badr Brigade to any attacks on U.S. or British troops.

Until a week ago, most of the attacks against coalition troops in Iraq remained confined to parts of the country populated by Sunni Muslims and suspected Hussein loyalists.

The Pentagon's apparent reassessment of the situation began after six British soldiers were killed a week ago at Al-Majar Al-Kabir, a Shi'a town in southern Iraq where the Badr Brigade has a strong presence. Since that attack, there also have been ambushes against coalition troops in Shi'a neighborhoods of Baghdad and in other Shi'a-dominated areas.

On 30 June, Iranian Foreign Minister Kamal Kharrazi denied Iran is supporting violence in Iraq through its sponsorship of Iraqi Shi'a groups.

"We do not agree with what is going on in Iraq these days, and we think that there are much better ways to resolve the chaos in Iraq," he said. "And the Islamic Republic of Iran, as a neighbor of Iraq, can play a very positive and effective role in helping the people of Iraq establish a democratic government chosen by the people."

Ayatollah Mohammed Baqir al-Hakim is the clerical leader of SCIRI who spent some 20 years in exile in Iran during Hussein's rule. Hakim said during his sermon in the southern Iraqi city of Al-Najaf on 27 May that the causes of violence include the Iraqi people's "frustration" in seeing their hopes dashed after two months of occupation by U.S. and British forces.

Hakim said some attacks are "individual reactions to humiliation" at the hands of coalition troops conducting house-to-house searches for weapons. Hakim urged his followers not to use violence, except as a last resort. He said now is the time for Iraqi Shi'a to negotiate with the U.S. civil administration in Iraq and to use only peaceful means to show their opposition to the ongoing U.S. and British military presence.

Hakim blames Hussein loyalists for the majority of recent attacks in Iraq, saying the Ba'athists are doing everything they can to destabilize the country.

Yesterday, Hakim announced that SCIRI's Badr Brigade would be turned into a civilian group working for reconstruction. The move follows an order issued a month ago by the U.S.-led coalition for all Iraqi militias, except Kurdish peshmergas, to turn in their weapons.

Mowaffak al-Rubaie, a London-based Iraqi Shi'a activist who is trying to help build democratic political structures within the Iraqi Shi'a community, told RFE/RL it would be a mistake to attribute recent attacks against coalition forces to any organized Iraqi Shi'a group.

"The majority of the Shi'a are coordinating and cooperating with the allied forces. Those of the Shi'a who oppose the coalition forces are resisting through peaceful means -- demonstrations, picketing, announcements, all nonviolent opposition. Even the most extremist of the Shi'a -- the Islamic fundamentalists -- are not using military or violent means against the coalition forces," al-Rubaie said.

But al-Rubaie said he is concerned that some Shi'a groups could become marginalized during the process of democratic reform.

"Badr Brigade has adopted a policy of converting from a military wing, a military group, to a political group," al-Rubaie said. "And they want to get involved in the political process. We should be very careful in excluding [any Shi'ites from either end of the political spectrum], because if we exclude these people from the political process, from the process of democratization, they will become an underground movement, and they will adopt all unconventional nonpolitical methods."

Rumsfeld's inclusion of an Iranian influence as a factor behind the violence in Iraq was not reiterated by U.S. President George W. Bush in public comments yesterday. Bush continues to place the blame for the ongoing violence squarely on Hussein loyalists.

"The looting and random violence that began in the immediate aftermath of war remains a challenge in some areas [of Iraq]. A greater challenge comes from former Ba'ath Party and security officials who will stop at nothing to regain their power and their privilege. But there will be no return to tyranny in Iraq. And those who threaten the order and stability in that country will face ruin just as surely as the regime they once served," he said.

U.S. General Tommy Franks, who led the Anglo-American invasion of Iraq, says Washington's commitment to democratic reform in Iraq means it will not hastily withdraw its soldiers. "It is also very sure that the coalition will have forces in Iraq for the foreseeable future as the people of Iraq identify their own form of governance and accept responsibility for their country and for their governance themselves," Franks said.

And Paul Bremer, the U.S. civil administrator for Iraq, said yesterday that political reforms are moving ahead. "We are well on track to establishing an Iraqi interim administration by mid-July as I have all along suggested. My staff and I have recently traveled all over the country, from Rutba to Dohuk, from Baghdad to Basra, to ensure that the new governing council is properly representative of the country."

Bremer maintains the attacks on coalition troops are increasingly alienating most Iraqis. He says more Iraqis are beginning to work with coalition forces, as well as the new Iraqi police force, by providing information about who is behind the attacks.