British officials believe Iran is behind increasing violence in southern Iraq, London's "Times" newspaper reported on 20 September. The report connected violence in Al-Basrah the previous day with the arrest by British military personnel of leading figures in the Al-Mahdi Army of radical cleric Muqtada al-Sadr. The report went on to link Iran's purported actions against the British with London's toughening stance on the Iranian nuclear program.
Asked if he believes Iran is behind tension in southern Iraq, U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld said on 20 September: "Iran has been busy in southern Iraq for years and years and years," voa.com reported. "They've sent pilgrims back and forth across that border into those Shi'ite holy sites on a regular basis. The borders are porous." Rumsfeld was not certain about an Iranian role in the previous day's incidents, but he added, "They're interested, they're involved and they're active." Rumsfeld continued, "And it's not helpful. You know, you can overplay your hand."
Speakers at the United States Institute of Peace on 14 September also discussed the Iranian role in Iraq (http://www.usip.org/events/2005/0914_rahimi.html). Ken Pollack, the Director of Research at the Saban Center for Middle East Policy at the Brookings Institution, said the establishment of safe houses and networks are just some of the suspicious Iranian activities in Iraq. Another speaker, USIP senior fellow Babak Rahimi, noted that by dint of proximity it would not be difficult for Iran to interfere in southern Iraq. These two, as well as the Nixon Center's Geoffrey Kemp and Georgetown University's Daniel Brumberg, concurred that Iran is very sensitive to Iraqi affairs and U.S. actions there. However, none of them described how extensive Iranian interference in Iraqi affairs might be at the moment.
There is little question of an active Iranian presence in southern Iraq specifically or of Iranian involvement in its neighbor's affairs since at least March 2003. Tehran's stand towards events in Iraq has developed against a backdrop of continuing hostility to what it perceives as its greatest enemy -- the United States. Iran also is faced with the possibility of Kurdish autonomy and being surpassed by Iraq as the center of Shi'a Islam (see also "The Nearest and Dearest Enemy -- Iran after the Iraq War," http://meria.idc.ac.il/journal/2005/issue3/jv9no3a3.html.)
Tehran Blames Washington
Tehran rejects links with the violence in Iraq and attributes it to the United States. Foreign Ministry spokesman Hamid Reza Assefi said on 21 September, "Publishing such reports is aimed at concealing the incapability of the occupying forces in restoring security to Iraq," the Islamic Republic News Agency (IRNA) reported. If anything, Assefi said, Iran has contributed to stability in Iraq by working with the central government and other parties.
One day earlier, Supreme National Security Council Secretary Ali Larijani told a Tehran press conference that Iran has tried to bring stability to Iraq, state television reported. Larijani, like Assefi, pinned the blame on the United States. He said, "we believe that the occupation of Iraq and the bases they are setting up there and their humiliating behavior towards the Iraqi people have resulted in an extreme reaction."
The 14 September bombings in Baghdad, which killed hundreds of people, also were blamed on the United States. Guardians Council Secretary Ayatollah Ahmad Jannati said in his 16 September Friday Prayers sermon in Tehran that the violence is harmful to all Muslims and all Iraqis, state radio reported. He went on to say that the U.S. has more plots for the region and is "constantly causing insecurity." Jannati claimed, "They want to poison the minds of the Shi'ia that the Sunnis are behind these incidents. They want to create discord and distrust among Shi'a and Sunnis. They have various political objectives with these tensions and killings."
Ayatollah Ebrahim Amini-Najafabadi said in his 16 September Friday Prayer sermon in Qom that the people responsible for the bombings are targeting Shi'a and are "knowingly or unknowingly" harming Iraq, state television reported on 17 September. He explained: "Apparently there are certain hands which want to put the Iraqi people against each other. The aim is in fact to rationalize the foreign occupation. Obviously when the country is not safe, the occupiers have the pretext that 'if we leave, the country will fall apart, Iraq will fall apart.' This is the pretext for remaining." He added, "The main responsibility for all these crimes lies with the aggressors, led by America and Israel. They entered Iraq with the excuse that they want to bring security and justice. Is this security?"
A Difficult Situation
The situation in Iraq is so complex at the moment that to attribute the violence to just one or two actors would be woefully simplistic. Several reports on 21 September in "The Wall Street Journal," the "Guardian," the "Financial Times," and the "Christian Science Monitor" carry interviews with experts from across the political spectrum, as well as diplomats and locals, who note that Shi'a militias -- most notably the Badr Corps and the Al-Mahdi Army -- are active in the south and have infiltrated the police and other institutions. Therefore, the primary loyalty of individuals in the security agencies and local government is to these Shia organizations. An anonymous Baghdad-based "Western diplomat" told "The Guardian" after a visit to Basra that the militias are involved with smuggling, as well. Moreover, there are rivalries between the different Shia militias. A clash occurred in Najaf in August when the Al-Mahdi tried to reopen its office in the city (see "RFE/RL Iraq Report," 26 August 2005).
The Sunni-Shi'ite rift is widening, too. Fugitive Jordanian terrorist Abu Musab al-Zarqawi's 14 September declaration of war on Shi'a Muslims came on the heels of his July announcement that the newly-established Umar Brigade's sole function is to kill Badr Corps personnel (see "RFE/RL Iraq Report," 19 August and 19 September 2005). Other Sunni groups, including the Ansar al-Sunnah Army and the Victorious Sect Army, claim to have killed Badr Corps personnel.
Resolution of the tense situation in Iraq through the give-and-take of civilized political discourse is possible and is clearly the desire of most Iraqis. Bringing about an atmosphere in which this dialogue can take place requires the elimination or at least neutralization of extremists like al-Zarqawi and his followers.
For more on events in Iraq, see RFE/RL's website The New Iraq