Iranians in Iraq Left Out in the Cold

Secular Arabs who fled Persian rule were welcomed by Saddam Hussein. Now stateless, they fear reprisals from Shiites in both nations.

By Louise Roug and Raheem Salman

Los Angeles Times

July 10, 2005

BAGHDAD — Near the Musa al Kadhim shrine here, Ali Alwani hides in plain sight among Shiite merchants selling sticky coconut and cardamom sweets from rickety stalls.

Across town, his brother has taken refuge in an upscale Sunni Muslim neighborhood. He feels safer surrounded by former members of the Saddam Hussein regime.

The brothers are Shiites, but it is Shiites they fear.

Many lives in Iraq were upended by the fall of Hussein. Some people gained freedom and liberty. Others lost everything they had. The brothers' limbo illustrates the pitfalls of history and the intertwined destinies of Iran and Iraq, two neighboring, Shiite Muslim-majority nations that lately have grown closer.

The Alwanis say they left Iran in 1979 because, as secular Arabs in a Persian land, they endured persecution and feared what the Islamic Revolution would bring.

They recall that the government had begun forcefully resettling the oil-rich southern part of the country where they lived with Persian citizens, renaming cities in Persian and denying Arabs basic rights.

Crossing the border into Iraq, they and other Iranian Arabs were welcomed by Hussein, an Arab leader who realized he could use these exiles against the country they were fleeing.

Today, after three wars and the passing of a quarter of a century, they cannot go back. Their allegiance with Hussein, they say, has condemned them to living without a country — and without rights.

"Iran considers us Iraqi, and Iraq considers us Iranian," Alwani said.

His family backs an Arab separatist movement that seeks the independence of the Iranian region where he and his brothers grew up.

Although it is basically an ethnic struggle, the stakes are even higher because the region is home to some of the most valuable land in Iran, known as Arabistan by exiled Arabs and Khuzestan by the Iranian government.

Alwani, who believes that a battle has begun for control of the region, supports violence, while his brother advocates more peaceful means. Both are active in the separatist movement.

Three weeks ago, a series of bombings aimed at government buildings in the regional capital, Ahvaz, killed eight people in what was described as the worst violence Iran had seen in a decade.

The following day, the Iranian government arrested several people but released little information about the suspects. The government said outside groups wanted to disrupt the recent Iranian election, in which hard-line Tehran Mayor Mahmoud Ahmadinejad easily won the presidency.

One Ahvaz exile group took responsibility for the bombings, but other exiled Arabs said that group was a front for the Iranian secret police, who were the ones really behind the attacks.

Alwani says he does not know who carried out the attacks, but he feels uplifted by them.

"I believe my country is occupied and what has been taken by force should be taken back by force," he said. "We feel all the people in the region are getting their independence. Why not us?"

With Americans in the region, now's the perfect time to achieve that ambition, he said.

"A fair infidel is better than an unfair believer," he said.

Sitting at the back of his store in Baghdad's Kadhimiya neighborhood, Alwani tells stories of the bloodshed and persecution suffered by Arabs in his homeland and the underground movement born in 1925 that seeks Arab separation.

The size of the Arab community in southern Iran is unclear. The government has never conducted a census. The province's population is estimated at 4.3 million, with Ahvaz having close to a million inhabitants.

How many fled amid the 1979 Iranian revolution also is unclear.

"Balanced information on Khuzestan, especially anything having to do with the Arab population there, is pretty hard to come by," said Wayne White, a fellow at the Middle East Institute in Washington who is a specialist on the region. "The province probably was heavily Arabic-speaking, say, at the beginning of the 20th century. That said, the oil boom since then brought in countless Iranians of non-Arab origin, reinforced beginning in the 1930s by the deliberate Persianizing efforts of the late shah."

Supporting the secessionists, Hussein's regime gave the exiles plots of land and special privileges, soon laying claim to Khuzestan. In an effort to exacerbate ethnic tensions, Iraqi TV and radio stations broadcast programs into the region, calling for Arab revolt against the government in Tehran.

When Iraq invaded Iran in 1980, starting the eight-year war that killed more than a million people, the Arab exiles fought alongside the Iraqis, Shiites against Shiites.

As the saying goes, "the enemy of my enemy is my friend," said Alwani's brother, who wants to be known by his nickname, Abu Amar, or father of Amar, because he fears retribution.

He acknowledges that his family ended up on the wrong side of history but insists the allegiance with Hussein was purely strategic. "We were ambushed by the Mukhabarat," Hussein's notorious Iraqi secret police. "Iraq used us as a political card in the game against Iran."

Today, a number of obscure exile groups are spread out across Europe — notably in the Netherlands and Britain — and in Canada. Their goals range from increased rights for the Arab minority in southern Iran to complete separation.

Abu Amar, who describes himself as a senior leader of one group known as the Arab Front for Ahvaz Liberation, says he hopes the region can become semiautonomous like Kurdistan in northern Iraq.

"It is not easy to liberate Ahvaz," he said. "The Iranian regime is very strong."

The government in Tehran "wants to defame us so that people in the world will think we're terrorists. We're not."

As devout Shiites increasingly gained power in Iraq after Hussein's fall, the Arab exiles began fearing that militias connected to political parties or Iranian agents might seek revenge for their past allegiances to the fallen dictator. Several people with ties to the old regime have been assassinated in southern Iraq.

"We will be killed, if not today, then tomorrow," said Tamim Nashali, another exile. "Iraq will be a cemetery for the Ahvazi."

In Baghdad, Abu Amar works as a taxi driver. Fake documents hide his history as a major in Hussein's army.

Sunnis generally have been supportive, he said. "That's why I'm here in this neighborhood."

But a friend with ties to Hussein's regime was assassinated recently in the southern Iraqi city of Amara, shot 10 times by gunmen on his way to a funeral, Abu Amar said.

Before the U.S. invasion, "we were free," he said. "We had land. We lived in dignity. We had a house." He's left with his old ID card from the Defense Ministry and a letter from the Office of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees certifying his status as a refugee.

"We were expecting the situation in Iraq would change 360 degrees," he said, "but we did not expect that [most] of Iraq would be controlled by Iran."

The border between the two countries is porous, and some of the exiles went back to Iran. "But when they found things were worse there, they returned," said Sameer Abdullah, 38, another Iranian.

The Iranian government refused to grant citizenship to those who returned. Those who stayed in Iraq do not have Iraqi citizenship either and carry the old ID cards that bear the mark of collaboration.

Their dialect also gives them away, as do special license plates that were issued by Hussein's government.

"Amara is a small town — they know us well," said Abdullah, a former Iraqi army officer who now works in a bakery. "We're considered part of the old regime."

Abdullah came to Iraq as an 8-year-old, but the country is no longer home. "We are between two fires," he said. "I feel I am lost."