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Iran sways Iraqis with food, aid

Tehran's support of Iraqi opposition groups like SCIRI wins hearts and minds.

By Ilene R. PrusherStaff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / June 9, 2003


Two months after the fall of Baghdad, it is easy to find corners of Iraq that resemble the neighboring Islamic Republic of Iran. Some schools are now regularly visited by religious guidance officials; mosques and universities are enforcing a stricter form of hejab, or Muslim covering for women; and poor areas devastated by war are receiving assistance from Iranian-funded organizations.

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Perhaps more important, the most outspoken voice to emerge against US plans to redesign Iraq is the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI). One of seven major Iraqi opposition groups, SCIRI is funded, aided, and until recently, headquartered in Iran's capital city, Tehran.

In this period of uncertainty in Baghdad - with political currents moving faster than efforts to form a transitional government - Iran's attempts to leave an imprint here are seen as either meddling or magnanimous.

To Washington, Iran is trying to destabilize the American-led rebuilding effort, discredit US influence, and perhaps even guide Iraq toward more theocratic foundations. Buttressing such claims, says one senior US official, is a laundry list of evidence - from media outlets that serve as virtual organs of the Iranian viewpoint to direct political involvement in various cities and "sightings of senior officers" of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps in Iraq. Iran's Revolutionary Guards trained and funded the Badr Brigades, the military wing of SCIRI that has fanned out around Iraq and continues close cooperation with Iran, according to the senior US official.

But many Iraqis, religious Shiites in particular, see it differently. After more than two decades of Tehran's assistance to Iraqi opposition groups such as SCIRI and other anti-Baathist Shiite organizations, some Iraqis express gratitude. Tehran, through their eyes, is trying to help Shiites who were the subject of brutal oppression under Mr. Hussein's regime.

SCIRI leaders for their part insist they are acting in Iraq's interests and not taking directives from Tehran.

"We are not hiding our love for Iran," says Mullah Hamid Rashi al Saadi, a Shiite cleric from Sadr City, recently renamed for a senior SCIRI cleric assassinated four years ago. "But if you are talking about destabilization, it is not to the benefit of Iran that its neighbor is in a destabilizing situation. The US is always trying to blame Iran and consider it a terrorist country, but it is not."

While Mr. Saadi's ultimate dream is for Iraq to be ruled by Islamic law, he says it's not a practical goal at this time. "I am a religious man, and I really hope we are going to have an Islamic government, because we believe Islam is the best system to lead in this part of the world," he says in his SCIRI office here. "But the Iraqi people consists of many religious groups and opinions and because of that, a democratic government will have to come at the end of this period."

SCIRI was expected to be a key player in a national conference to be held soon after the war that would launch a transitional government. It outright rejects a new plan by L. Paul Bremer, the leading US official here, to appoint a political council instead. "Mr. Bremer has no authority to appoint a council," says Hamid al-Bayati, a leading member of SCIRI's central committee. "Without an Iraqi process, the people will reject the outcome of the appointments. If the people want us to have an Iraqi national conference soon, we will have it."

In the meantime, Mr. Bayati says, the Badr Brigades, whose raison d'ĂȘtre was to oppose the Baathist regime, is obsolete as a military unit. Now, SCIRI officials say, Badr is turning its former fighters into aid workers who are distributing food, setting up health clinics, and performing a wide variety of services that have gone completely absent since the war. "The American forces want to do these things by themselves," he says, "but these things cannot be done by the army. They need a civilian foundation."

Iran's pattern of support