3. Washington and Tehran Vie for Iraq’s Shiites

Perhaps the strangest bedfellows made by the US campaign against Iraq are America itself and the hardline ayatollahs of Teheran.

According to DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s sources in Washington and the Gulf, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, along with his senior political adviser Hashemi Ranfsanjani okayed a secret visit to Washington by the Tehran-based Iraqi Shiite opposition leader, Mohamed Baqir al-Hakim, head of a group calling itself the Supreme Council of the Islamic Revolution. In fact they gave a US air force plane permission to land at an air base near Tehran and take off on August 1 with the Iraqi Shiite leader on board.

This episode does not signify a relaxation in the animosities governing Washington-Tehran relations. On the contrary – both countries are rivals for the future control of Iraq’s largest community, some 16 million Shi’ites who inhabit the oil-rich region of the south.

Why then, did Iran’s leaders agree to let al- Hakim be flown to Washington?

DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s sources in the Gulf cite two reasons:

1. The Saddam regime’s removal is of such paramount importance for Iran, that its leaders have decided not to impede the early stages of the American military assault on Baghdad – even if the Americans employ Shiite militias to achieve their goals. If those goals are the disappearance of Saddam’s rule together with his security apparatus and powerful Republican Guard divisions, Iraq’s Shi’ites would win a reprieve from the Iraqi Sunni Muslim threat hanging over their heads. Having failed to blunt Saddam’s Sunni sword by their own political and military efforts, the ayatollahs are willing enough to leave the job to the Americans and even smooth the way for them to cultivate al Hakim as a war ally.

2. Washington’s invitation to the Iraqi Shiite leader is a dark secret for two reasons: First, members of the Bush administration have been vehemently outspoken in their criticism of the Tehran regime and cannot afford to let it be known that they are now employing an Iranian protege as a war ally. Second, for the same reason, the other seven Iraqi opposition leaders invited to Washington next week will never accept al Hakim as one of their number or even a member of the new federal government, else they will look like collaborators with the Iranian enemy.

This fits the Iranian game plan. The rulers of Tehran will not accept an American role in establishing an autonomous Shiite government in southern Iraq or choosing Shiite representatives in the new federal Iraqi administration in Baghdad.

Iran has taken three steps for damage control:

A. Hakim was warned before he flew off to Washington that if he betrayed Iran and switched his allegiance over to the American side, Iran would raise the pro-Iranian Shiite clergy and is intelligence agents in south Iraq to overthrow him as Shiite leader.

B. To give substance to their threat, the Iranians declared a general military call-up and placed on alert the Badr Brigade, the special commando force training for years to operate inside Iraq. Composed of pro-Iranian Iraqi Shi’ites who defected or fled to Iran from Saddam’s religious persecution, the 3,000-strong force is trained in guerrilla warfare and stationed in four bases along the Iran-Iraq border. Ten days ago, small units of five to eight infiltrated Iraq at points in the south and the north. The Badr squads made for the southern oil region and began skirmishing with Khozistan Liberation Front contingents fighting with US special forces, therefore striking at the American advance action in the region against Iraq.

According to DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s military sources, the Badr units were ordered to destroy the Khozistan Liberation Front guerrilla forces aiding the Americans for fear they may cross into Iranian Khozistan and touch off an anti-Tehran revolt in this oil-rich region.

Tehran has long-standing designs on southern Iraq’s oil fields, which the presence of the Iraqi Khozistan guerrillas would block. Badr Brigade spies have gone there on advance logistical and intelligence missions in case Tehran decides to grab those oilfields before the Americans get there.

Finally, the Iranians want the Khozistanis out of the way of a possible Badr Brigade advance on the Shiite cities of Iraq, Najef and Karbala.

According to DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s military sources, a separate group of Badr fighters was recently spotted moving over the northern and eastern hills overlooking the northern Iraqi oil city of Mosul, in the company of fighters of the Kurdish Hizballah, an organization controlled by the Iranian Revolutionary Guards.

US intelligence estimates that these mixed pro-Iranian squads were sent to keep an eye on US special forces in southern and northern Iraq, and spy out the land in case Tehran orders strikes against the American military presence.

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