Shortly before the 25-member Iraqi Government Council ceremonially signed an interim constitution at Baghdad’s Convention Center Sunday, March 7, a quiet get-together took place in Najef between Iraqi Shiite leaders and a high-ranking Iranian delegation which had been told to spend ten days in southern Iraq. The meeting was authorized by the most influential Shiite cleric in Iraq, Ayatollah Ali Sistani.
DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s Baghdad and Tehran sources have learned that the delegation consists of a representative of Iran’s spiritual ruler, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, director of the Iraq division of the Revolutionary Guards and head of the Persian Gulf department of the foreign ministry in Tehran. They crossed the border near Amara straight after the deadly suicide bombings in Karbala and Baghdad.
US administrator Paul Bremer and his superiors in Washington are aware of the Iranian visitors but since they arrived as pilgrims to Shiite holy places, nothing can be done about their presence in Najef.
According to our sources, the Iranian emissaries came with a tempting proposition from Tehran of a broad treaty of cooperation with Iraqi Shiite leaders as the framework for large investments in the creation of a modern and efficient economic infrastructure for the community. They displayed a list of projected joint enterprises and plans for developing the road system, water, electricity, medical and educational facilities in the Shiite regions. As a major source of tourism, they displayed plans to jointly organize annual pilgrimages for hundreds of thousands of Iranian Shiites to Iraq’s Shiite shrines in Karbala and Najef.
According to our sources, the Iranian officials are still on tour around Iraqi Shiite centers, hard-selling their plans to local Shiite leaders including secular officials who come to meet them at rendezvous outside Baghdad. A number of transactions have been contracted.
The visitors are lending the talks the aspect of business conducted between two independent governments, as though Baghdad with its US-led coalition government and Iraqi Governing Council never existed.
The immediate effect was apparent in the reservations heard from Shiite spokesmen, led by Sistanti, immediately after the signing ceremony of the provisional constitution in Baghdad – even though Shiite officials had just affixed their names to the document.
Thus, by sweet talk and sweeter propositions, Tehran is fostering in Shiite minds an instinct for self-government. The Iranians own an interest in such an entity because it would upset America’s plans for a united federal Iraq that would grow into a strong and prosperous nation on Iran’s western border and a dangerous example of a successful pluralistic society.
Its offer to share the organization of annual pilgrimages was prompted by a particular Iranian sensitivity. As long as Saddam Hussein was in power, the two shrines were closed to foreign pilgrims and receded in religious importance. Iran’s Qom grew into the pre-eminent world Shiite holy center. Now that Iraq has opened up, the ayatollahs in Tehran aim to control the traffic lest the two holy cities become important enough to detract from the supremacy of the cradle of Khomeini’s Islamic revolution at Qom.