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Iran sways Iraqis with food, aid

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

(Page 2 of 2)

On the other side of town, in a threadbare neighborhood called Habibiye, stands a rare sturdy and attractive building. It used to serve as a Baath Party meeting house. The hastily vacated building was occupied by SCIRI, which now uses it as a warehouse for distributing food and other supplies.

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Surrounded by massive bags of rice, flour, soap, and other goods - the vast majority of it trucked in from Iran - a former militant with the Badr Brigades says that he's now in charge of giving out aid to needy people.

SCIRI has centers around Baghdad where people who used to depend on UN rations can get free food and medical care, says Hussein Ali Al-Bahar. "During Saddam's reign, we were force to fight, but now we give out food," he says. "We also provide protection for schools. We send clerics to schools to oversee and advise the teachers of religious principles."

Hussein Kazem, another local SCIRI official, says the neighborhood would have descended into anarchy if their organization had not stepped in to fill the government's shoes. "Two months have gone by without security, infrastructure, or services, and so the people are helping themselves, because there is no government here," he says.

The everyday assistance helps people through the hard times. It also goes miles toward winning hearts and minds. It is the same strategy that the Iranian-backed Hizbollah, or Party of God, successfully employed in Lebanon through the 1980s and 1990s. It is a tactic that also helped win converts to the Palestinian fundamentalist organization Hamas. When accompanied with political pressure, it is similar to the behavior that riled the Bush administration in its earlier regime-change project: Afghanistan.

"There is a pattern not unlike the pattern we saw in the early part of last year in Afghanistan, which is the genesis of Iran involving itself in a neighboring country," the senior US official says. "The goal is destabilization. It is negatively motivated - to create instability, to keep things in Iraq off-balance, and to keep us occupied. They have an interest in having things not go too well."

But with the recent upsurge in tensions between the US and Iran, riding on new charges by the Bush administration that Tehran is developing nuclear weapons and harboring senior Al Qaeda operatives, the stakes in Iraq are higher than they were in Afghanistan.

"They're playing a dangerous game," the US officials says. "One, they're likely to stir up resentment against them. And two, our own tolerance for destabilization activities is limited."

Maj. Gen. Ahmed al Hafagi, a military and security adviser to SCIRI, says it should not surprise the US that Iran is emerging as a prominent player in postwar Iraq. After harboring and aiding groups opposed to Hussein for so many years, some Iraqis treat it as only natural that Iran will try to reap the benefits.

"Iran absolutely has interests here it must protect in order to protect the national security interests of Iran," General Hafagi says. Like thousands of other Iraqis, he escaped to Iran and now feels that Iran must be treated respectfully. "Iran helped us for 23 years with billions of dollars, fighting against Saddam. And like we thank America, we thank Iran."

Impatient with US efforts

To be sure, some Iraqis are concerned about Iran's increased reach here. But, growing impatient with a road to reconstruction that is turning out to be much slower and rougher than many Iraqis expected, some blame the US for not stabilizing Iraq more quickly.

Even outside Shiite Islamic circles, some Iraqis accuse the US of looking for a scapegoat for everything that has yet to go Washington's way in postwar Iraq. And just as the US warns Iran to tread carefully, so must the US.

"It might be that they want to pressure Shiites under the pretext this is Iranian influence," says Bayati, the senior SCIRI leader.

If the US pushes too tough of an anti-Iranian line in postwar Iraq, some here say, it will be read as a battle to keep Shiites out of power. And that, many here remember, is one of the premises on which Iraq was founded.