Dancing Attendance on Fragmented Iraqi Opposition

Now that it is finally convinced that an American campaign to overthrow Saddam Hussein is inevitable, Tehran is racing America to determine the shape of the future regime.

As a step to this end, the ayatollahs are hosting a conference of all the Iraqi Shiite factions in Tehran next Monday, February 24, the driving force behind which was Harekat el-Amal el-Islami, a veteran secular Shiite party and rival to the Iranian-backed Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI).

However, Iran is wooing all Iraq’s opposition groups regardless of faith or ethnic affiliation, so as to be able to prevent Washington from dominating the future administration in Baghdad. In this, Iran is not alone. DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s sources report President George W. Bush’s personal envoy, Zalmay Khalilzad, is organizing a conference in April of all Iranian opposition groups – not just the Shiite factions. By pre-empting the US meeting and scheduling one of its own, Iran is also cautioning SCIRI leader Ayatollah Mohammad Baqer Hakim to beware of coming to terms with the Americans without seeking sanction from Tehran.

A still more important Iraqi opposition conference, one that was scheduled to settle the future division of powers among Iraqi’s Kurds, Shiites, Turkmenis and Sunnis, was to have taken place this coming Wednesday in the Kurdish city of Salah-ed-Din in northern Iraq. Already postponed several times, this event is unlikely to bridge the deepening differences among these ethnic groups, and is unlikely to come off at all.

But the Iranians have got in first with their Iraqi opposition conference under the motto: Unity – “Iraq for all Iraqis”.

Promoting that slogan, a top El-Amal leader, Sheikh Mohseen Hosseini, said in Teheran: “We are all Iraqis and Iraq is there for all its citizens without distinction. Iraq does not have separate Shiite, Kurdish or Sunni cultures – only one Iraq culture.”

This mantra does not interfere with the Shiites’ claim to primacy in any future Iraqi government because they make up 70 to 75 percent of the population.

Iran expects all the Shiite factions to be represented at the Tehran conference by about 150-200 delegates. They include Hezbad Daavah al-Islamiah, a veteran Shi’ite group with a strong power base in Iran. Several of its leaders are descendants of Iranians who migrated to Iraq as custodians of the Shiite holy cities of Najaf and Karbala.

Hakim’s SCIRI is going into the conference weakened by its independent contacts with the United States. But Daavah and El Amal have also been in touch secretly with Washington, and there have even been reports that they have been promised seats in a future Iraqi government.

Iran deeply resents Washington’s plans for the US military to rule Iraq for around two years before handing authority over in stages to a post-Saddam administration ruled by Iraqis. Iran fears that Khalilzad, who made sure to keep Iranian influence out of the Karzai government in Kabul, will try and do the same in Iraq.

To spread its net wider, Iran also invited to Monday’s conference representatives of two radical Kurdish-Sunni religious groups, Al-Jemaat al-Islmya and Ettihad Islami, both of whom are strong in the Kirkuk area of northern Iraq. Iran recently supplied them with a large consignment of weaponry and military equipment to buy their support in the months to come.

Nothing that happens in Tehran next week can alter the fact that Iran must contend with a deeply fissured Shiite community in Iraq. DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s exports that even single factions, like El-Amal, are divided down the middle. Opposition Sunni groups are in the same state.

Iran may try to play each group off the other, working to the principle of divide and rule. But this tactic could backfire badly when the time comes for marshalling a united front against the United States.

Iranian leaders recently sharpened the tone of their threats against the United States. Iran’s hard-line supreme leader Ali Khamenei said this week: “If the United States attacks Iraq, it will face a rebellion by all the nations of the Middle East, and will be dealt a heavy blow that could destroy its superpower status.” Another influential Iranian leader, Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, said the United States would sink into a swamp in Iraq deeper than the one it stumbled into in Vietnam.

On the domestic political front, Iranian parliamentarians are puzzled by the Iranian leadership’s conflicting signals on Iraq. Fifteen deputies tabled a question in parliament for foreign minister Kamal Kharazi to clarify the issue, after discovering that, while adopting an apparently confrontational posture towards Washington, Iranian leaders secretly offered the Americans a limited measure of cooperation on Iraq.

On Wednesday, February 19, parliament met in secret session in Tehran to weigh the pros and cons of Iran’s contradictory Iraq policy. There was no immediate information on its outcome, but the deputies later withdrew their question.

None of this interferes with Iran’s other transactions. Tehran has turned away feelers regarding a bolt hole for Saddam or a way station to another place of exile. But in the past the Iranians denied asylum to al Qaeda fighters in flight from Afghanistan. All the same, Iran now admits it took in at least 500 al Qaeda members on the run although it claims they were arrested and sent on to the Gulf emirates or Saudi Arabia. Nevertheless, according to DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s sources, senior al Qaeda officers still enjoy the sanctuary of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards propaganda and intelligence wing that operates out of the spiritual leader, Ali Khamanei’s bureau. Their needs are taken care of and they are housed in villas in Teheran and Mashhad, a city in northeastern Iran near the border with Afghanistan.

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