Iran-backed forces join those vying for influence in N. Iraq

Prepping for post-Hussein power grab, Shiite soldiers are building a large camp in Kurdish-controlled areas.

In a grassy field peppered with rocks in this eastern corner of Kurdish-controlled northern Iraq, some 200 Iraqi Shiite soldiers are building a camp big enough for five times as many troops. A large gun mounted on a hilltop defends the position. Flags extolling the prophet Muhammad and a Shiite martyr flutter in the breeze.

Backed by sharp-edged mountains, the site is a favorite of Kurdish picnickers. Today the camp - established when the soldiers arrived in trucks from Iran on Feb. 19 or 20, according to local residents - is fresh evidence of the forces and nations that will compete for power in a new Iraq.

Last month, Turkey announced it would send troops into the Kurdish areas of northern Iraq in the event of a US invasion, prompting the Kurds to say they would fight such an intrusion. Now come the Shiite soldiers of the Badr Brigade, an Iraqi opposition force seen by the Kurds and the US as an Iranian proxy.

The US, which says it opposes a "unilateral" Turkish military presence, is even less enthusiastic about an Iranian role. "We're against any Iranian presence in northern Iraq or any group that reflects Iranian presence in northern Iraq," State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said this week.

The Badr Brigade is the military arm of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, a Tehran-based Shiite group headed by an exiled Iraqi cleric, Ayatollah Mohammed Bakr Al Hakim.

Although neither government has openly acknowledged the Badr Brigade's presence in Northern Iraq, it is impossible to imagine that the camp could have come into being without Iran's permission and the connivance of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan. The Shiite soldiers at the camp refused interviews, but said informally they were preparing for a US-led attack against Hussein's regime and to house deserters from his army.

Although Mr. Hakim and his fighters receive Iranian support, they have some legitimacy in their own right. Mr. Hakim sits on a six-man Iraqi opposition leadership council created last weekend. The brigade he heads, estimated to include 5,000 to 10,000 soldiers, is the only organized anti-Hussein militia apart from the forces of the two Kurdish parties that control parts of northern Iraq.

More broadly, some 60 percent of Iraqis follow the Shia branch of Islam, making them the largest and potentially most influential element in what Iraqis often call the mosaic of their society.

Hakim's followers say opponents of President Saddam Hussein - whether they are Shiites, Sunni Muslims, or Kurds - recognize the ayatollah's political preeminence. "They know Mr. Hakim is the biggest figure in Iraq, whether they like it or not," says Husham Al Husainy, who runs an Islamic center in Dearborn, Mich., and who participated in a recent opposition meeting in northern Iraq.

Shiites say they have a history of injustice to correct. The foreign powers that ruled Baghdad until the mid-20th century - first the Ottomans, then the British - exercised power through the Sunni minority, which then took control. Hussein's secular Baath Party has brutally stifled any Shiite political activity aimed at promoting an Islamic state.

In 1980, Iraq went to war against Iran, an overwhelmingly Shiite country headed by clerics who took power a year earlier. Iraqi Shiites fought hard against Iran, but Mr. Hussein repressed them still further.

Then in 1991, following Hussein's defeat in the Gulf War and mindful of US encouragement, Shiites revolted, killing Baath Party and government officials in parts of southern Iraq, the Shiite heartland. Kurds in the north also rebelled.

Despite expectations to the contrary, the US declined to stop Hussein's forces from extinguishing the uprisings. The Iraqi tanks that entered Shiite areas were painted with the slogan, "From today, there will be no Shiites left in Iraq."

US and allied forces later established "no fly zones" in both parts of Iraq. In the north, Hussein pulled back, allowing the Kurds to exercise autonomy. Not so in the south, where repression continued. "As we saw with a series of assassinations throughout the 1990s, any Shia religious figure that got any type of following was murdered," says Toby Dodge, an Iraq expert at the University of Warwick in England. More than 100 clerics and scholars disappeared after the revolt.

As a result, religious leaders in southern Iraq have changed how they exercise power, moving to win influence quietly.. "Baghdad's purging of the south has increased the influence of religious groups, who've posed as quiet, passive, and nonpolitical," Mr. Dodge says.

While some experts expect these groups to lie low in any US invasion, others say they could be part of a popular movement against the regime. "A strong alliance has been forged between key southern tribes and the clerical class in [the Shiite holy city of] Najaf," says Faleh Jabar, an Iraqi analyst at the University of London.

Last fall, Hussein replaced all southern provincial governors with loyal military men, but he has also used gentler tactics. Mr. Jabar says the regime has tried mending fences with the clerical class in Najaf by providing money, favors, and connections. "To what extent he has won over any of them with this carrot and stick policy is anybody's guess," he says.

Hakim went into exile in 1989 and leads the largest Shiite opposition group, but it is unclear what sort of support he will muster. "[He] is refused by the Shia people; they don't consider him their representative," says an Iraqi Shiite poet in the Kurdish-controlled city of Sulaymaniyah, who fled Baghdad in 1999. "During the Shiite uprising ... he didn't stand with his people, he obeyed instructions from Iran."

Mr. Al Abbadi says he favors the ideas of Kanan Makiya and Ahmed Chalabi, exiled Iraqis who advocate a secular, democratic state. Secular Shiites like Al Abbadi worry that Iran's influence over Hakim will lead him to institute an Iranian-style theocracy.

"Hakim has a burden to prove to his people that oppression and dictatorship are not going to return," says one of his supporters, a London-based exile named Akram Al Hakim.

Mohammed Bakr Al Hakim himself says he favors freedom and democracy. "Iran is ruled by a velayat-i-faqih [guardianship of the (Islamic) jurist]," he said in an interview last month, "and he is on the top of the power and administration, but in Iraq there should be a kind of government that represents all the Iraqi [citizens] and political directions."

No one in northern Iraq is welcoming Hakim's men with any discernible warmth. "We hate Arabs sent by Iran to come in and learn information about our Kurdistan," says Mahmoud Amin, spokesman for the Kurdistan Social Democratic Party in Darbandikhan, a Kurdish town near the Kani Chinara camp. He says the presence of the soldiers reflects Iran's aim to "occupy" Kurdish areas. "We accept them on the condition they do not betray us."

Staff writer Scott Peterson contributed to this report from Qom, Iran.

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