Iran Is in Strong Position to Steer Iraq's Political Future

By EDWARD WONG

The New York Times

July 3, 2004

BAGHDAD, Iraq, July 2 With the chaos of the occupation and now the loosening of American control here, Iran has moved into its best position in decades to influence the political shape of Iraq, Western and Iraqi officials say.

Already, the Iranian government has quietly strengthened its presence in Iraq by providing financial backing to a range of popular Shiite Muslim groups and by flooding the country with intelligence agents, the officials say.

Movement across the 900-mile border is much freer than under the rule of Saddam Hussein, as evidenced by the droves of Iranian pilgrims flocking to the Shiite holy cities of southern Iraq and the daily smuggling of goods and people.

Most worrisome to American officials are Iran's close ties to powerful Shiite clerics like Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, who was born in Iran, and Moktada al-Sadr, who led a fierce rebellion against American forces for nearly three months this spring. American officials believe that Iran might have partly financed Mr. Sadr's movement.

Though Shiites are a majority in both nations, Iraqis are torn between religious and national loyalties. Just how much sway Iran will exert over a new Iraq is far from clear. But some warn that Iran, the world's dominant seat of Shiite Islam, could be the silent power broker as Iraq heads toward elections in January.

Iran's aim, Iraqi and Western officials say, is to shape an Iraq run by religious Shiite politicians who could serve as proxies of the clerics in both countries.

"They want a failure of America in Iraq, but they hope the country will be stable enough not to destabilize Iran," said a Western diplomat in Baghdad with extensive experience in the region. "The best thing for them would be a stabilized Iraq with a friendly Shia power in Baghdad created in opposition to the occupation forces."

With the toppling of Mr. Hussein's secular dictatorship, competition for the heart of Shiite Islam in the region has broken open. For American policy makers, one of the greatest fears has long been an Iraq ruled by Shiites vulnerable to Iranian influence. That was one reason the United States did not support a Shiite rebellion after the 1991 Persian Gulf war.

The White House now hopes that secular-minded Shiites like Iyad Allawi, the interim prime minister, will govern a democratic Iraq that will in turn transform Iran, which President Bush included in the "axis of evil" with Iraq and North Korea.

Since the American invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan, the Western diplomat said, the Iranians "have the feeling that they're surrounded by Americans or friends of the Americans."

Some experts say Iran's seizure in June of three small British Navy boats on the Shatt al Arab waterway between Iraq and Iran was in part a petty but prominent way for Iran to emphasize that its interests in the region would not be ignored.

Iran has expressed both hostility toward and guarded acceptance of the interim Iraqi government, reflecting the internal battles in Iran's own leadership. For years, the two major camps in the Iranian government the reformers led by President Mohammad Khatami and the hard-liners who follow Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khameini have pursued separate foreign policies.

But many Iraqis already suspect Iran of wielding enormous influence over the most prominent Shiite political parties here. A poll conducted in May for the Coalition Provisional Authority showed that the most popular political and religious leaders in Iraq were Shiites with strong Iranian ties.

"It seems clear that the Iranians are trying to butter both sides of the bread and all four crust edges," said Prof. Juan Cole, an expert on Shiite Islam at the University of Michigan.

The Shiite parties contend that they remain independent of the Iranian government, but also point out that Iran was the only country willing to harbor them in exile during Mr. Hussein's rule, and so it is not surprising that their ties to Iran remain strong.

At the same time, Iranian meddling is not without its risks. As many as half a million Iraqis died in the eight-year war with Iran in the 1980's, and the wounds and hostilities linger. When ordinary Iraqis talk about bombings and assassinations here, they often blame Iranian agents after pointing the finger at the United States and Israel.

Partly because of those sentiments, Shiite parties once exiled in Iran under Mr. Hussein most notably the Dawa Islamic Party and the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, known as Sciri contend that they no longer have direct ties to their former host, despite a history of generous financial support from Iran's government.

Officials here and in Washington say otherwise.

A senior American military official said in an e-mail message that the United States Army has observed "a large amount of U.S. currency being passed by Iran" to Sciri, which was founded in 1982 by an Iraqi ayatollah exiled in Iran. The money was exchanged for "the supposed purpose of paying salaries and maintenance of vehicles and facilities," the official said.

Humam Bakr Hamody, a senior Sciri official, played down the link. "Sciri is not related to the Iranian government and has different positions and opinions," he said.

The party had received money from sources in many Middle Eastern countries, including Iran, he added, and the funds had come from individual donors rather than governments. Money is delivered to the party over the Iranian border because there is no reliable way to wire money to Iraq, he said.

A senior Iraqi Shiite official familiar with the security situation here confirmed that financial transactions were taking place between Iran and various Shiite parties. Those include the militia led by Mr. Sadr, the 31-year-old Shiite cleric who is more popular than ever in Iraq after leading his spring rebellion against the occupation forces.

The American military, seeking to avoid street-to-street fighting in Najaf, a city held sacred by Shiites for its shrines, has backed down from its promise to kill or capture Mr. Sadr.

American soldiers seized large stashes of Iranian currency during arrests of Mr. Sadr's aides, an American military official said. But it was unclear whether that indicated direct involvement by the Iranian government in the insurgency.

In May, when anti-American fighting peaked in the city of Kufa, the main mosque there, a Sadr stronghold, broadcast pleas for blood donations in both Arabic and Persian, the language of Iran. At the time, Iranian pilgrimages to the city had dried up, and the calls for aid in Persian fueled suspicions that Iranian fighters had joined Mr. Sadr's militia.

A resident of Kufa said in an interview at the time of the uprisings that he opened his door one day to find two Persian-speaking militiamen setting up a mortar outside.

Mr. Sadr has been open about his allegiance to Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the leader of Iran's 1979 Islamic revolution. Last month, a Sadr aide said in a sermon at the Kufa mosque that Mr. Sadr "promises God and Muslim countries" that he will "keep following Khomeini" as long as he lives. One of the most zealous units of Mr. Sadr's militia is named after Ayatollah Khomeini.

Mr. Sadr's fealty to the late ayatollah stems from long family ties across the border and a history of adversity under Mr. Hussein's rule.

His patron, Ayatollah Kazem al-Haeri, still lives in the Iranian city of Qum, arguably the foremost seat of Shiite theocratic learning. The offices of both clerics in Najaf acknowledged that Mr. Sadr operated as his patron's spiritual representative in Iraq and that substantial money flowed between them.

Mr. Sadr's deceased uncle, Muhammad Bakr al-Sadr, one of the last century's most respected Shiite thinkers, was close friends with Ayatollah Khomeini and took an active role in Iraqi politics by opposing the ruling Baath Party. Mr. Hussein had him killed in 1980.

Mr. Hussein also ordered the killing of Muhammad Sadiq al-Sadr, the father of Moktada, who before his death in 1999 named as his successor Ayatollah Haeri. The ayatollah's office in Qum has organized donations for Moktada al-Sadr and his militia, the Mahdi Army.

Despite indications of Iranian support for Mr. Sadr, prominent Iranians appeared wary when he led his followers to open rebellion, with its potential of destabilizing Iraq. In late April, as Mr. Sadr was urging the militia on in its attacks against the Americans, Ayatollah Haeri issued a statement saying he did not support the actions.

In mid-April, Iran sent envoys to Najaf in what it said was an attempt to negotiate an end to Mr. Sadr's insurgency, possibly because the fighting was jeopardizing American plans eventually to hand power to Shiite parties. An Iranian diplomat was assassinated in Baghdad at the time, and senior American officials said they did not want Iran interfering in Iraq.

Iran said the "iron fist policy" of the United States had led to the delegation's failure. At a recent sermon in the golden-domed Shrine of Ali in Najaf, a leader of Sciri, Sadr al-Din al-Kubanchi, criticized the Iranian government for not reining in the mercurial Mr. Sadr.

The single most powerful cleric in Iraq remains Ayatollah Sistani, a 73-year-old Iranian who moved to Najaf in his early 20's. In the 1990's, his organization began making substantial financial contributions to clerics in Iran, which brought him closer to the top religious leaders there.

But Ayatollah Sistani's relationship with Iran's mullahs is not necessarily one of subservience or even ideological allegiance. The pipeline of money flows both ways, and associates say the ayatollah receives donations gathered by his Qum office.

Ayatollah Sistani's mentor in Najaf, Grand Ayatollah Abu al-Qassim al-Khoei, promoted the "quietist" school of Shiite Islam, which advocated that religious leaders remove themselves from direct involvement in politics a view that ran counter to that of Ayatollah Khomeini.

Close associates of Ayatollah Sistani have said he is intent on transforming Najaf into a Shiite power center to rival Qum, which was strengthened in the 1980's by an influx of clerics fleeing Najaf during Mr. Hussein's rule.

Iran's influence can be felt even beyond its direct ties to Iraq's clerics, religious parties and the strongly Shiite south.

Iran is suspected of having close ties to Ahmad Chalabi, the former exile and secular Shiite politician once backed by the Pentagon.

The Federal Bureau of Investigation has opened an investigation into charges by American intelligence officials that Mr. Chalabi told Iranian officials that the Americans had broken a code used by Iran. Mr. Chalabi has denied the charges.

In northern Iraq, Maj. Gen. John R. S. Batiste, commander of the First Infantry Division, said, "There has definitely been an effect from Iran since we've been here." The general declined to provide details. Another senior American military official said Iranian intelligence agents were operating in the division's command area, which is slightly larger than West Virginia and shares a long border with Iran.

In February, before Iranian pilgrims flooded into Iraq for the Shiite festival of Ashura, American military officials said they were monitoring Iranian intelligence agents working out of central Baghdad.

"Iran is the regional hegemon," the senior military official said. "They're trying to set the stage for the Shia to take power."

Nazila Fathi contributed reporting from Tehran for this article.