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Iraq Report: March 14, 2006

14 March 2006, Volume 9, Number 10

HAS TEHRAN CROSSED THE LINE? Last week, U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld repeated allegations that the Iranian government is "putting people into Iraq to do things that are harmful to the future of Iraq."

Speaking to reporters at a March 7 press briefing in Washington, Rumsfeld added that "they're putting Iranian Al-Quds Force-type people into" Iraq. Asked if these forces were carrying out violence or trying to instigate political instability, Rumsfeld replied: "I don't think we could consider them religious pilgrims."

General Peter Pace, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told reporters at the same briefing that the U.S. has found some improvised explosive devices and weapons that it believes can be traced to Iran. Pace added that there has been an influx of "individuals" across the Iran-Iraq border but declined to say how many. Asked if the people entering Iraq were backed by the Iranian government, Pace said simply "I don't know."

Asked the same question, Rumsfeld was more ominous. "Well, of course," Rumsfeld said. "The Revolutionary Guard doesn't go milling around willy-nilly, one would think."

He added that the Iranian government might some day view its role in Iraq as an "error in judgment."

Years Of Speculation

Iraq observers have spent much of the past three years debating the extent of Iranian influence in Iraqi affairs. There is a growing belief in both Iraqi and U.S. circles that Iranian agents have permeated the Iraqi security apparatus, as well as the extra-governmental militias that engage in armed conflict with Iraqi police and army units and multinational forces. Iranian-style weapons -- in particular, more powerful improvised explosive devices -- have also made their way to Iraq in increasing numbers, posing a considerable threat to Iraqi and U.S. security forces.

In an August 2005 feature, the newsweekly "Time" argued that the Iranian regime began planning its infiltration to Iraq in late 2002, setting up military units along the Iran-Iraq border. The units reportedly accompanied Iraqi opposition parties and militias when they entered Iraq during the opening days of the war. "Time" reported that as many as 12,000 people entered Iraq from Iran in the early days after the U.S-led invasion, including agents of the Iranian security services.

Three years on, Iran appears to have entrenched its intelligence and paramilitary forces in Iraq by playing two sides of the conflict: Shi'ite parties and militias who share a common religious outlook, and Sunni Arab Islamists bent on establishing an Islamic caliphate in Iraq.

Among the possible Iranian goals in Iraq that have been bandied about are (1) establishing an Islamic state and preventing the formation of a pro-Arab, pro-U.S., secularist regime; (2) driving U.S. forces from Iraq; (3) preventing the revival of Al-Najaf over Qom as the seat of Shi'ite scholarship; and (4) obtaining influence over the exploitation of Iraq's natural resources, namely oil. A fifth possible goal is to establish a secure route linking Iran to Syria, thereby enabling the movement of goods and hardware that could be used as leverage in Iran's relationship with Israel.

Moving In

Iraq's leading Shi'ite political party, the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), was based in Iran for some 20 years prior to the downfall of the Saddam Hussein regime. SCIRI's armed wing, the Badr Corps (now known as the Badr Organization) was trained by Iran's Al-Quds Force, a special-operations unit of the Islamic Revolution Guards Corps. The Cairo-based weekly "Al-Ahram" contended in 2005 that Iranian President Mahmud Ahmadinejad played a role in the formation of the Badr Corps and hence wields influence over the organization today. However, the veracity of that allegation is not known.

As the U.S.-led invasion in 2003 got under way, Badr forces -- hundreds of whom are Iraqis with military training who defected to Iran in the 1980s -- entered Iraq. They quickly took control of security, local governance, and aid organizations in Shi'ite-populated towns in Mada'in, located some 30 kilometers south of Baghdad, and as far north as Samarra, located 100 kilometers north of Baghdad. Many analysts believe the Badr forces were accompanied by Iranian Al-Quds Force troops.

Within a month, their sphere of influence had spread to other areas of the country. SCIRI head Abd al-Aziz al-Hakim announced on April 23, 2003, that Badr forces "are in most villages and areas" in the country. "Nobody can drive them out," he said. The lack of security along the 1,000-kilometer Iran-Iraq border allowed for the free flow of weapons into Iraq.

In areas where these forces could not seize overt control, they turned to local clerics to bolster their influence. In areas where they faced resistance, they bought influence in local councils or seized power by force. Meanwhile, Iranian intelligence agents employed a systematic program to eliminate anyone with close ties to the United States, as well as former military personnel and technocrats who served under Hussein, Cairo's "Al-Ahram Weekly" reported on July 6, 2005.

The Situation Today

Iran's influence in Iraq today reportedly extends to all corners of the country but is most pervasive in the south. Iranian-backed militia consolidated their control over Al-Basrah by 2004. Now, they dominate the police, governorate council, security apparatuses, and even humanitarian organizations. The militias in the city have virtually eliminated local opposition. Now, minority Christians, Sunni Arabs, and secular Shi'ites are subjected to strict Islamic conduct in the region. Journalists have either abandoned their work altogether or work clandestinely.

In central Iraq, Iran has reportedly funded insurgents through Syria, setting up intelligence networks that some have claimed were better organized than Iraqi intelligence. In its August 2005 report, "Time" magazine wrote that it had obtained IRGC files from August 2004 showing at least 11,740 Badr Corps members were still on the IRGC payroll.

In October 2005, London's "Sunday Telegraph" reported that the Al-Quds Force had established three main smuggling routes into Iraq through Al-Basrah, Al-Amarah, and Baghdad from a base in Ahvaz, which is located inside the Iranian border southeast of Al-Amarah.

Support For Al-Sadrists

Shi'ite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr denies any relationship with the Iranian regime, but he visited Iran in June 2003, where he met with high-level Iranian officials. Al-Sadr visited Iran again in January 2006, meeting with Supreme National Security Council Secretary Ali Larijani. Since that time, it appears relations have deepened, and some U.S. and Iraqi officials have alleged that Iran is funding al-Sadr's Imam Al-Mahdi Army.

Following the fall of the Hussein regime, al-Sadr, a low-level cleric, aligned himself with Qom-based Iraqi Ayatollah Kazim al-Ha'iri, relying on the ayatollah to issue fatwas that supported his agenda. The relationship was soon on rocky ground after al-Sadr clashed with the clerical establishment in Al-Najaf in late 2003. Later clashes between al-Sadr loyalists and U.S.-led coalition forces in 2004 led to a severing of ties with al-Ha'iri -- leaving al-Sadr without the crucial backing of a senior cleric.

During this period Iran reportedly set up training camps for Al-Mahdi militia inside Iranian territory, according to several sources. According to the reports, the militiamen are trained in combat tactics, reconnaissance, and espionage.

It was also during this time that a number of attempted assassinations were carried out against leading Shi'ite clergy. Some Iraqis accused the Iranian Al-Quds Force of carrying out the attacks, saying Iran's clerical leadership was worried about the revival of Al-Najaf's hawzahs (seminaries), which they viewed as a threat to Shi'ite seminaries in Qom.

The Al-Zarqawi Link

Iran has had links to key Al-Qaeda leaders since the mid-1990s. Al-Qaeda No. 2 leader Ayman al-Zawahiri was the "frequent guest" of the Iranian intelligence ministry and Al-Quds Force commander Ahmad Vahidi throughout the 1990s, according to a January 20, 2003, report by the International Policy Institute for Counterterrorism. Iran's relations with Abu Mus'ab al-Zarqawi's Al-Qaeda-affiliated organization reportedly began in 2001. According to a December 2005 report prepared by Dore Gold and Lieutenant Colonel Jonathan Haleve for the Jerusalem Center for Public Affairs, al-Zarqawi visited Islamic Revolution Guards Corps (IRGC) training camps and received logistical support from the Al-Quds Force in 2001. Likewise, al-Zarqawi spent time in Syrian training camps in 2002.

While an ideological divide separates al-Zarqawi's Salafist ideology and the Shi'ite ideology of Iran, the two share some common goals, including the overthrow of corrupt Sunni Arab regimes, the desire to establish Islamist rule across the Muslim world, and the destruction of Israel and its allies, namely the United States. Therefore, it is entirely plausible that al-Zarqawi and Iran's theocratic leaders have been able to come to some sort of strategic alliance.

Iran has reportedly aided Sunni Islamist terrorist organizations in the past -- in Algeria, Egypt, and Gaza. Western intelligence analysts claim that Iran's modus operandi is to "outsource" to proxy organizations the conduct of terrorist activities so that they cannot be linked to Iran.

Iranian Brigadier General Qasim Suleimani of the Revolution Guard Corps said in 2004 that Iran supported al-Zarqawi because his activities in Iraq coincided with Iran's goal of preventing the establishment of a pro-U.S. government there, the London-based "Al-Sharq al-Awsat" reported in August 2004.

Any al-Zarqawi-Iran connection may have been severed in recent months, however, as al-Zarqawi's ideology hardened. Al-Zarqawi announced in July that his group had formed the so-called Umar Brigade to hunt down and kill Shi'ite Badr Corps members. Despite warnings from Al-Qaeda leaders -- including No. 2 Ayman al-Zawahiri -- that he should cease his attacks on Shi'ites, al-Zarqawi's group has continued its activities. Around the same time, al-Zarqawi also clashed with his one-time spiritual mentor, Jordanian-based Abu Ahmad al-Maqdisi over theological issues.

Iran's Ties To The Iraqi Government

Iran's strong relations with members of Iraq's Shi'ite-dominated government go back to the 1980s when groups like SCIRI and the Islamic Al-Da'wah (Call) party sought refuge in Iran from Saddam Hussein's regime.

Within this culture SCIRI's armed wing was born, and today members of those groups are prominent in the Iraqi government, including Prime Minister and Al-Da'wah Party leader Ibrahim al-Ja'fari and Interior Minister Bayan Jabr, who is a former leader of the Badr Corps. Jabr's leadership of the Interior Ministry has been called into question after dozens of attacks on Sunni Arabs in Iraq in the past year were purportedly carried out by armed men wearing ministry uniforms. Jabr has denied any wrongdoing by his forces, saying the uniforms were worn by insurgents hoping to spark sectarian violence in Iraq.

Other Iraqi Shi'ite leaders have also blamed insurgents for attacks on Sunni Arabs. Some observers have speculated that leaders such as SCIRI head al-Hakim and al-Ja'fari have lost influence over their original base of support among Iraqis living in Iran before the war. As a result, either they can't control armed Shi'ites or they won't, because they are still dependent on Iranian financial support for their extra-governmental activities.

The outgoing transitional government has worked hard to secure stronger relations with Iran, signing a number of economic agreements with Iraq's eastern neighbor over the past nine months. Al-Ja'fari has in the past supported recognizing Iranians as a minority group in Iraq, "Time" magazine reported in August 2005. Although Iraqi Shi'ite leaders have maintained that they do not support the establishment of an Iranian-style theocracy in Iraq, they did lobby intensively for the new constitution to spell out a greater role for Islam. (Kathleen Ridolfo)

KURDISH INTELLECTUAL FACES A SECOND TRIAL. Jailed Kurdish intellectual Kamal Sayyid Qadir spoke by telephone from Irbil with RFE/RL's Radio Free Iraq on February 27. Qadir was convicted in January of defaming the Kurdish cause and the intelligence service of the Kurdistan Democratic Party in articles that he wrote while in Austria, where he has citizenship.

According to Qadir, his initial trial lasted only 15 minutes. The original charges were reportedly thrown out. His new trial on lesser charges in the Court of Misdemeanors is set to begin on March 9. Kurdish officials told RFI that Qadir remains in prison awaiting trial because he is considered a "special" case.

Qadir is currently being held by the Asayish intelligence service in Irbil. He has been allowed to keep his mobile phone in his cell.

Kamal Sayyid Qadir: This has been for the fifth time that I have announced a hunger strike. I previously undertook four hunger strikes during my imprisonment here in the Asayish [internal security headquarters] and received concessions from officials. This time, however, I have really entered a hunger strike that I will continue until I am released either on bail or indefinitely. I promise all honest people that I will not tolerate this oppression.

Yesterday [February 26], I suffered from oppression as a judge came who was obligated to release me on bail, but I was not released because the public prosecutor was not there. Therefore I have entered a hunger strike, and I will continue it until I leave prison as a free person, being released either on bail or completely. Asayish officials have always respected my previous decisions [of this kind]. I am convinced that they will respect my decision also this time and that they will not be made to use methods of force feeding me because this is not possible. They did not try this in the previous times, and they will not try now either.

I want to demonstrate to the Iraqi and Kurdish people, and to people in general, that oppression has two sides: the first side is the oppressor and the other side is the oppressed who tolerate their being oppressed. But I am not from those who tolerate oppression because, for all my life, I have been cautious to care about the rights of others. If I cannot defend my own rights, how then can I defend the rights of others?

RFI: Do you think you were mistaken in your writings that have been used against you in the trial?

Qadir: I have not been mistaken in my writings. I have written maybe 100 articles and studies so far. I do admit that I have used some words that are not appropriate toward some people mentioned in the articles. But I have apologized to those people directly, in a letter addressed to Kurdistan Region President Mas'ud Barzani, Kurdistan Regional Government Prime Minister Nechirvan Barzani, and other people who were named in the articles.

Nonetheless, I cannot revoke what I have written about the problems of corruption and protectionism in Kurdistan and Iraq. These are problems that no one can overlook, and Kurdish media have recognized them too. There is social inequality, inflated prices, and injustice. There is a problem with justice itself as the courts are not free to the extent that we would wish and that international law requires. This is what I have written, and I will be writing further in this manner.

I want to mention that the gentlemen of the Asayish in Irbil said they did not want to prohibit me from writing, but that the thing they do not want me to do is to use words that I have used in some articles. I should mention as well that those words occurred in a particular situation, and the leadership of the Kurdistan Democratic Party knows well that I am not guilty in this issue but someone else is.

I do admit that I have used some words that are not appropriate toward some people mentioned in the articles. But I have apologized to those people directly, in a letter addressed to Kurdistan Region President Mas'ud Barzani, Kurdistan Regional Government Prime Minister Nechirvan Barzani, and other people who were named in the articles.

This is something I want to explain to Kurdistan Regional Government Prime Minister Nechirvan Barzani. He asked me to send a letter to him in which I would explain the problem, and I asked him if we could meet for a few minutes so that I could describe for him the background of this issue. This is a political cause in which I am a mere victim.

RFI: How would you assess the proceedings of the trial against you?

Qadir: It has been an unfair trial to an extreme extent, violating the legal guarantees of human rights. The first trial, for instance, where I was sentenced to 30 years' imprisonment, was even against the Iraqi Code of Criminal Procedure, and definitely against international law. It resembled the trials of Saddam Hussein's era.

RFI: Did it help you during the prosecution and the trial proceedings that you bear [dual] Austrian citizenship?

Qadir: On the contrary. The judge who tried me was very disturbed with the fact that I bear Austrian citizenship. He intended to take revenge on me for my being a Kurd bearing Austrian citizenship because he told me that a Kurd should not take the citizenship of another country.

I replied to him that I am a Kurd but there is no citizenship of Kurdistan so I had found myself in need to take Austrian citizenship. [I said] there are Kurdish officials and ministers, including members of the political bureaus of the Kurdistan Democratic Party and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, who bear the citizenship of foreign countries, including Austria.

RFI: A number of international organizations think that Iraq has become a dangerous place for journalists and writers. What is your comment on this subject?

Qadir: This is correct, I agree with this opinion. There have been murders, violence against, and kidnappings of journalists. Especially foreign journalists, but also Iraqi and Arab journalists [are targeted]. This is obvious to everybody, but all of us expect the Kurdistan Region, being the safest part of Iraq, to be in a different situation.

On the contrary, the freedoms of expression and thought should be guaranteed here but, unfortunately, these principles have not turned into reality until now. This is the reality I had to face. When I returned from Austria to Kurdistan, I could never imagine that, one day in Kurdistan, I would be abducted by my Kurdish brothers, exposed to torture and insults, and standing an unfair trial. This has been a nightmare to me that I would like to forget. I only hope this [case] will be an exception not a rule.

RFI: After you leave prison and the file of your trial is closed, what are your plans in the field of writing?

Qadir: I am proud that I have dedicated 40 years of my life to the service of scholarship and teaching. I have promised myself and sworn to myself that I will dedicate the rest of my life to the service of human rights, human dignity, and social justice, because now I have suffered myself from the hardships of injustice.

I am from a Kurdish family that has sacrificed itself, its property, and whatever a human being owns for the sake of the people�s freedom, democracy, and human rights. Nevertheless, I am not a nationalist, as I have defended Arabs, Jews, Germans, and Austrians. Wherever there is oppression, I want to stand against it. In the future, God willing, I want to be always in support of the rights of the oppressed, through legal means and through writings. I will dedicate the rest of my life to these principles, God willing. This is what I promise.

I wanted to work as Gandhi although I hope that Kurdistan does not need any Gandhi to liberate people because the way to democracy in Kurdistan has indeed begun. But shortcomings appear here and there, and all of us must remove as many of them as possible. This goal must be reached within the framework of law, God willing, and of the constitution of Kurdistan if one is introduced.

RFI: Have you dreamt of playing a role similar to that of Egyptian thinker Sa�d al-Din Ibrahim, who has been prosecuted on issues related to human rights?

Qadir: I have published articles in English, Arabic, and Kurdish on human rights, political systems, and similar issues. But I have never dreamt, or thought of, being exposed to persecution or prison in Kurdistan some day because of my writings. I did not have in my mind any plan to become like Sa�d al-Din Ibrahim or anyone else, although I admit that I had in my mind to serve human rights and human dignity because I personally feel happy when I can fulfill this task.

RFI: Do you think that it is easy for writers and journalists to criticize negative phenomena in Iraqi Kurdistan?

Qadir: There are issues dangerous to their lives but the danger is even graver in some other areas, such as central Iraq and possibly also southern Iraq with Al-Basrah. In Kurdistan, this danger is smaller unless you transgress some limits. These limits are clearly visible to all of us. I think I have myself gone a few steps beyond these limits and this is the price I have paid.

RFI: How do you look at the future of Kurdistan and Iraq on the background of the current situation?

Qadir: I am very pessimistic on the current situation in Iraq. I have published articles in Arabic where I warned that a sectarian war might break out in Iraq. Namely the conditions for the outbreak of a sectarian war can be found in Iraq due to the nature of interaction between some of the religious communities. There is monopolization of power by some families, not really [religious] brotherhoods or sects.

The primary problem in Iraq is that some families have dominated power. They are families who have inherited religious power and then transformed it into political power. [This may be a reference to the Barzani family, originally a line of hereditary sheikhs of the Naqshbandi order in Islamic mysticism -- ed.] This is the most serious danger for democracy in Iraq and even in Kurdistan.

If you look at Kurdistan, [you will see] we are not ruled by a political party but by some particular families who have divided the resources and the posts in the region among their members. Being with these families means receiving some portion of the shares. The opposite means being deprived of even the most basic daily needs. I am one of the latter ones: I have a doctoral degree, speak six languages, have published in four languages � but had I remained in Kurdistan, I would have probably been selling vegetables in the street because I cannot find a convenient position within the system.

If civil war breaks out in Iraq � and this will hopefully not happen, God willing � Kurdistan will have no other choice but to remain out of such a malicious war. This may [be achieved] either through a separation from Iraq, or taking a neutral position like Switzerland and Sweden in the first and second world wars. The latter may be our preferred choice. But our problem is an economic one because 99 percent or more of our economy is linked to the Iraqi economy. The future of Kurdistan is under a serious threat if the current crisis in Iraq outside Kurdistan further deteriorates.

RFI: Where will you live after your case comes to an end? Will you return abroad, or will you stay in Iraqi Kurdistan?

Qadir: I returned from abroad to Kurdistan to 1991, immediately after the war of the liberation of Kuwait ended and Saddam�s forces left Kurdistan. Therefore, I have never thought of leaving Kurdistan, except for the period of the civil war between the dominant political parties [in Iraqi Kurdistan in 1994-95]. I have returned to Kurdistan and taken the taste of prison and injustice but I will stay in Kurdistan for the sake of justice and strengthening democracy in Kurdistan, and for the sake of justice not only in Kurdistan but also in the Kurdish areas that were Arabicized by the former regime [of Saddam Hussein]. No injustice is bigger than to expel people from their homes. This wrongdoing has affected not only Kurds but also Assyrians and Turkomans.

I would like to dedicate the coming two years to supporting the right of the displaced for the return to their homes and so forth in accordance with the Iraqi constitution, Article 136. (Translated by Petr Kubalek)