Iran Embeds Badr troops in Iraq’s Shiite centers, Races US for control

The first great pilgrimage to Karbala that Iraqi Shiites were permitted to make in almost 30 years, starting Tuesday, April 22, may prove the defining event in the US-Iran contest for influence over Iraq’s majority Shiite community. The freedom to commemorate the 7th century death in battle of Imam Hussein, grandson of the Prophet Mohammed, was a mark in America’s favor. However, the striding pilgrims arrived with banners calling on the Americans to leave Iraq. Some also demanded an Islamic state to replace the Saddam regime. The three-day event in which a million or more dancing, chanting worshippers form processions around self-flagellating ecstatic youths will sorely test American skills in maintaining order without angering crowds inflamed by competing imams, especially at the ceremonies’ climax on Wednesday, April 23.
debkafile‘s sources in Baghdad and Tehran report that the Iranians raised the military stakes by pouring thousands of Al Badr Brigades troops into Iraq on Sunday and Monday, in advance of the pilgrimage and in breach of its understandings to Washington. One column of 3,000 men, heading south from Kurdistan, seized control of sections of the strategic town of Baqubah in the Diyala region only 50 km northeast of the Shiite al Azamiya and Saddam City districts of Baghdad. Baqubah also straddles the main Baghdad-Iran routes. A second Badr Brigades contingent of 3,000 to 4,000 crossed from Iran into Iraq near the southeastern town of Al Amarah and advanced into al Kut, where it split into three sub-units, one each for Nasiriyah, Najef and Karbala.
The troops in southern Iraq are in civilian clothes and drive civilian vehicles, much like armed militiamen, while in Baquba they sport Iranian Revolutionary Guards camouflage uniforms and move around in Iranian army vehicles.
The Badr Brigades are in fact an undercover elite unit of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards. They are made up of foreign elements, mostly Iraqi and Afghan Shiites. The Badr Brigades thrust into Iraq this week was in effect an Iranian military movement timed to coincide with the Karbala celebration and spearhead the rise of local Iraqi Shiite militias in Iraq’s heartland region against the American military presence. Some 70 percent of Iraq’s estimated 12,000 Shiites inhabit the area between Karbala and Najef in the south and Baquba in the north, including Baghdad.
According to debkafile‘s military sources, Iran, in addition to moving Badr Brigades units into Iraq’s Shiite centers, made a further three tactical moves:
1. It pumped thousands of trained, well-armed guerrilla fighters through Basra and Al Amara into the Najef and Karbala regions to mingle with the pilgrims and manipulate the mood of the crowds from within.
2. The infiltrators delivered weapons, explosives and cash to pro-Iranian Iraqi leaders, arming them to fight pro-American or even moderate elements in the Shiite community.
3. They sent into Iraq the rabble-rousing Abdul Aziz al-Hakim, deputy head of the Supreme Assembly of the Iraqi Revolution, SAIRI, and brother of its leader, Ayatollah Muhammed Bakir al-Hakim, from Tehran where they live. He arrived with a group of fighters to stir into action the scores of clandestine anti-Saddam SAIRI cells believed to consist of between 1,500 and 2,500 militants.
Intelligence reports from the field point to Abdul Aziz al-Hakim’s men as having murdered Majid Khoei in the Najef mosque on April 10. The young, long-exiled Iraqi Shiite cleric had been designated as main American conduit to Iraq’s Shiite leaders.
The al-Hakim brothers are doubly dangerous to US plans for a democratic, multi-ethnic and stable Iraq. In the first place, behind their political-religious front, they command substantial military strength. debkafile‘s sources in earlier reports exposed French attempts to persuade the Iraqi Ayatollah to deploy his fighting units in Iraq against the US military presence. The second problem is the plausible formula he preaches that the US will find it very hard to debunk. His thesis in a nutshell is this: The best political course for Iraq is the parliamentary system of one-man, one-vote, without a sectarian agenda. The future government in Baghdad should uphold religious values rooted in Islam, the Sharia should be the main source of legislation. But the rights of all religious minorities will be respected.
On the face of it, what could be more democratic? The ayatollah welcomes a free general election no less than the Americans. And no wonder. Since the Shiites account for some 60 percent of the Iraqi population, the election results are a foregone conclusion: the Shiites will take over government in Baghdad by perfectly democratic means, displacing the Sunnites who ruled under Saddam Hussein and setting up a pro-Iranian, anti-American administration.
Many of the banners carried by the pilgrims thronging Karbala were prepared in advance and distributed by SAIR. They all carried the same message: The Americans must leave, No foreign rule for Iraq. We want an Islamic state. (For Islamic, read Shiite).
Tehran clearly seized on the Karbala pilgrimage as its opening for a mighty shove against the American presence in Iraq. No one is willing to predict whether the confrontation will pass quietly or degenerate into armed clashes with the potential for spreading to other parts of the country, including Baghdad itself.
The US-UK military command under US General Tommy Franks appears calm in the face of this potential. Troops of the US 82nd Airborne Division are watching over security from a distance, mainly keeping an eye on the 70-km long pilgrimage route between Karbala and Najef. However, debkafile‘s military sources have discovered that coalition forces deployed between Basra and Baghdad have been quietly placed on the ready, in case of trouble erupting on Wednesday. Washington has also forwarded a grave caution to Tehran with a demand to withdraw the Badr Brigades troops from Baquba and Karbala and keep them out of Baghdad.
How the American forces stand up to these Iranian and pro-Iranian provocations among the Shiite pilgrims in the latter part of this week will strongly affect the outcome of the developing US-Tehran standoff; it will even shape Washington’s posture on Iran, Syria and the militant Shiite Hizballah’s home base in Lebanon.

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