Rift grows as Iranians caught fighting for Sadr
Michael Howard in Baghdad
Friday August 13, 2004/The Guardian
Security officials in Baghdad were last night urgently investigating the background of 30 Iranians who were caught fighting for a rebel Shia cleric in Iraq, amid mounting concern over the involvement of the Tehran regime in the uprising.
The Guardian has learned that the most senior members of the Iraqi government were briefed about the capture of the men yesterday, and also told of other evidence that fighters and equipment have been crossing the border from Iran.
The 30 men were captured in the southern city of Kut on Wednesday and officials are trying to establish whether they have any links to Tehran.
"We are checking their identities but if they are found to have links to the Iranians then that would be tantamount to a declaration of war by them," said a senior Iraqi source, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
The source said members of Iraq's national security committee had yesterday been presented "with revealing information about the extent of Iranian involvement in Iraqi affairs", which was being taken seriously at the "highest echelons of government".
There was increasing frustration "at our neighbour's apparent indifference to cross-border security, despite promises of cooperation".
The source said two trucks laden with weapons destined for the fighters of the militant cleric, Moqtada al-Sadr, had been stopped at the Iranian border on Wednesday night.
Sabbah Kaddim, a senior adviser at the ministry of the interior, declined to confirm the seizure of the two trucks or the arrest of the Iranians. But he confirmed "there were a number of non-Iraqi elements" captured in Kut.
He added: "There has been a continuous stream of vehicles over the last few weeks trying to ferry arms across the border from Iran.
"We catch some, others must get through. The trouble is knowing who exactly is behind all this."
The violence between US and Iraqi forces and Mr Sadr's supporters has destabilised Shia areas of the capital and several cities across southern Iraq where Iranian influence is at its strongest.
Baghdad knows the unrest poses a critical test of strength for the interim administration of Ayed Allawi, whose success will be judged on the ability to deliver a secure environment in which to hold the country's first post-Saddam elections, scheduled for next January.
Iran denies stirring up violence in Iraq. It says it does not knowingly let fighters cross the long border between the two countries, but accepts that some might cross illegally.
Foreign fighters account for only a fraction of the insurgents in detention in Iraq.
Relations between Iran and Iraq, who fought a ruinous war from 1980-88, have plummeted in recent weeks. Iran yesterday summoned Iraq's top envoy in Tehran over the alleged arrest in Iraq of several reporters from Iran's state news agency and the fate of a kidnapped Iranian diplomat. Iran also denounced the assault by US marines and Iraqi forces in the holy Iraqi city of Najaf as "inhumane and horrible".
Foreign diplomatic observers in Baghdad have been alarmed by the "stoking up of tension" between the two neighbours. One senior diplomat said the Iranians were pursuing their activities in Iraq "more aggressively than three months ago, and they were hardly passive then".
Some foreign diplomats, however, question whether Iran would be able to do anything in Iraq than other than "stir things up a bit".
"Iranians will never be fully trusted by a majority of the Shia in Iraq," said one, suggesting there was not much the Iraqi government could do other than keep relations at a manageable level and allow the "game to play out in Iran, between those who want to help Iraq and those extremists who want to see the whole thing fail".
The differences among hawks and doves on the Iranian side are mirrored in the administration of Mr Allawi, some of whom represent political parties with ties to Tehran.
The Iraqi finance minister, Adel Abdel Mahdi, a senior member of the Supreme Council for Islamic revolution in Iraq, described cooperation between Iran and Iraq as "positive" after he led a large delegation to Tehran last week to attend a conference on reconstruction. Iran was one of the first to recognise the new Iraqi government and has also invited the interim prime minister Mr Allawi for an official visit.
An interior ministry official said yesterday: "We do have problems, but we believe that we can take the problems to the Iranian side and discuss them.
"The invitation was something of a surprise but it perhaps is an acknowledgment that Iran realises that things could get out hand in the south. It is not in their interests for there to be chaos. Many many Iraqi Shia are against what Moqtada al-Sadr are doing, and the sensible elements of the Iranian government know that. We believe we can develop better relations if we are honest with one another."
But one Iraqi diplomat, a former member of the Iraqi opposition who took part in the postwar planning, said: "You know we didn't misread the reaction of the Shia in postwar Iraq, as many analysts have suggested; our big failing was to misread the reaction from our neighbours. They really don't want to give us a chance."