Iraq war could recast US-Iran ties
In an exclusive interview, the leader of a major Iraqi opposition group in Iran signals a warming trend.
The leader of Iraq's most powerful armed Islamic opposition group is moving closer to backing American plans for toppling Saddam Hussein.Skip to next paragraph
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The support of Ayatollah Mohammad Bakr al-Hakkim, whose Supreme Council of the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI) adheres to the same Shiite branch of Islam as most Iraqis, would be a welcome ingredient in US plans.
Mr. Al-Hakkim's increasingly accommodating message - after rejecting any US military involvement in remarks last spring - reflects a changing stance in the country where he and his group now live: Iran.
The rebel group is just one factor in a prickly US-Iran dynamic: Though President Bush's condemnation of Iran as part of an "axis of evil" still rings in Iranian ears, Washington and Tehran share some larger strategic goals.
Observers say the potential Iranian-US horse-trading could result in possible use by US Special Forces of Iranian military bases, the destruction by the US of anti-Iranian militia bases in Iraq, and Iran's help in rooting out Islamic militants in Iraq linked to Al Qaeda.
"The basic assumption is the Iranians are anxious to cooperate, because they hate Saddam Hussein, but also because they don't want to be left out," says a European diplomat in Tehran. "Surely they have something to offer: They have influence on the Shia [in Iraq] - so let it be a positive [influence], and not a negative one, which is what everyone fears."
The key may be how Hakkim, as the head of SCIRI, plays his hand. Eight of his brothers - most of them clerics - have been killed under Mr. Hussein's regime. He was himself tortured in the 1970s before fleeing into exile, and has long dreamed of Hussein's collapse.
But he has some reservations about a US attack. "We agree with the Americans in the goal, but our way is different," says Hakkim. "We don't want the innocent to be killed, and we want to preserve the integrity, independence, and infrastructure of Iraq.
"If the American plan goes with these facts, we will cooperate with them," Hakkim says. "But if the matter is invasion of Iraq, or appointing an American ruler in Iraq, in this case we can't cooperate with them.."
Hakkim says he conveyed these points in Washington in August, when he sent his only surviving brother to meet with US officials and other Iraqi opposition leaders.
But that dialogue is now linked with a growing sense in Iran - home to SCIRI's 8,000 to 10,000 strong "Badr Brigade" force - that a US attack on Iraq is inevitable.
SCIRI's role is likely to depend on Iran and its declared policy of "active neutrality." "SCIRI is surely an unofficial voice of the Iranians," says the diplomat. " 'Active neutrality' in Afghanistan meant supporting the [US-backed] Northern Alliance. There is no reason it can't be the same here."
Iran was quietly very helpful to US forces during the Afghan campaign - secretly providing key targeting data on Taliban targets, while publicly agreeing to permit US pilots emergency landing rights in Iran. But Iran's reward - being branded part of the US "axis of evil" - was a slap in the face that still stings in Tehran. Despite the resulting "deep lack of trust, this could be another opportunity to get together," says an Iranian analyst who asked not to be named.