During the Muslim hajj to Mecca last week, Saudi intelligence was shocked to discover that the worldwide pilgrimage had sprouted a dangerous new offshoot.
Conscription officers of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards and agents of the radical Iraqi Shiite cleric Moqtada Sadr‘s Mehdi Army, mingling with the millions of pilgrims, were on a subversive mission: They were recruiting Saudi Shiites for a new underground group that would operate under orders from Tehran.
These agents, DEBKA-Net-Weekly‘s intelligence sources disclose, held meetings in Mecca under cover of the hajj with heads of the Shiite community, which is concentrated in the Eastern Provinces where most of the kingdom’s oil riches are located.
No one knows the exact size of this community; Riyadh has not published population figures for many years. The Shiites are estimated to number some four million, roughly 15% of Saudi Arabia’s population of some 27 million.
At the secret talks in Mecca, the Iranians and Saudi Shiites discussed ways to enlist young Shiites to the cause, undetected by Saudi security services; how to secrete them into Iran for training and send them back home fully armed with weapons, explosives and cash.
They agreed on a simple method. The Saudi Shiite conscripts would set out on pilgrimage to the Shiite shrines of Iraq, Najef and Karbala. There, they would be shepherded by Iranian RG and Mehdi Army officers across the border to training grounds in Iran and then guided back to southern Iraq.
The Saudi Shiites pilgrims received in Mecca a supply of written Iranian propaganda materials for dissemination in their home towns and mosques. The leaflets bore captions like, “Why do they (the Saudis) hate the offspring of the Prophet Ali” (founder of the Shiite faith and second holiest saint after Prophet Mohammed), or “Let us make Saudi Arabia the Hawza (Muslim religious seminar) for the next stage.” For Shiites this has only one meaning: Let us impose Shiite rule over the bastion of the Sunni Wahhabi extremist sect.
But as the hajj drew to a close, the Iranian conspiracy was blown. The secret meetings were picked up by Saudi security officers who had likewise mingled in the crowds of pilgrims. They tailed their prey and recorded their conversations.
The Iranian conspiracy was blown – but not scotched
Next, Saudi agents conducted searches in the hotel rooms of the Iranian-Iraqi delegation to the hajj. Many of its members got away: others, including its leader, were apprehended.
Under Saudi interrogation, they revealed that Iraqi and Iranian agents entered the kingdom on forged passports and identity papers conferring on them the status of pilgrims as members of Muslim families from Syria, Egypt and North Africa.
The recruiting delegation was headed by Sadr’s senior propaganda chief, Hassan Zarqani.
Early this week, the sensitive information drawn from the interrogation was referred to King Abdullah.
The royal house has not missed the impact of events in Iraq on its Shiite population, especially the expanding Iranian influence on Iraq’s Shiites. Riyadh is on the alert for secessionist restiveness among its Shiites as a result of potential Shiite self-government in the southern half of Iraq which abuts on Saudi Arabia. All the same, the Saudi princes were astounded, according to DEBKA-Net-Weekly’s Gulf sources, by the brazenness of the latest Iranian initiative to actually establish a Shiite underground militia inside the kingdom.
They have no illusions that such a militia would quickly assume the attributes of the subversive Badr Organization Tehran has planted in Iraq. It follows the same pattern.
In the 1980s, Iran recruited Iraqi Shiites for what was then the Badr Force under the noses of the Saddam Hussein regime and transferred them to Iran for training. It took twenty years, but in the end, after the US invasion of Iraq in 2003, Tehran and its Iraqi Shiite pawns found the right moment to infiltrate the Badr militiamen into Iraq.
Since then, the force has swelled to an estimated 10,000 to 20,000 well-trained fighters, who play a lead role in consolidating the Shiite drive for autonomy in the south. They are deeply immersed in the Shiite-Sunni strife in Baghdad, putting up some of the death squads plaguing the Sunni Arabs and stirring up further sectarian warfare.
According to our sources, the Saudis are not at all sure that their security services have uncovered the entire Iranian-Iraqi Shiite network taxed with building the Mecca Brigade.
Their experience of Iran’s aggressive machinations and intrigues have embittered the Saudi rulers to the point that they have intensified their support for the Sunni Arabs of Iraq and are investing great effort in a bid to prevent the rise of Shiite domination not only in Iraq but in Lebanon too.