Shadows of Tehran over Iraq
Iran's five-day effort in Najaf raises concerns for US over how much pull Iran possesses.
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Experts say Iran has been actively setting up "networks" in Iraq to be made ready to destabilize things in case of any US action against Iran. "The Iranians want to be in a position to meddle. They will gather intelligence, maybe collect weapons, to exploit a situation if America were to attack them," says the CPA adviser. "If you are Iranian, it would be sensible to create networks."Skip to next paragraph
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The US standoff with Sadr stems from an arrest warrant issued for the cleric over the murder of a moderate rival in Najaf a year ago, the arrest of his top aide, and closure of his newspaper. As violent clashes erupted across southern Iraq, the US vowed to "capture or kill" the cleric.
A 2,500-strong US force last week encircled Najaf and Sadr's base at nearby Kufa. Grand Ayatollah Ali Al-Sistani, who commands a broad following, has warned Sadr not to bring his fight into the holy cities. Still, on Thursday, Mr. Sistani issued a fatwa that US troops entering Karbala or Najaf would be crossing a "red line."
Sadr speaking at Friday prayers in Kufa, flatly refused to disband the Mahdi army under any circumstance - a key US demand.
Into this maelstrom stepped the Iran mediation effort last week, led by Foreign Ministry envoy Hossein Sadegi. The visit was overshadowed by the death of an Iranian diplomat, who was gunned down in his car on Thursday, as the delegation arrived.
The Iran team met a US diplomat, in a rare face-to-face session, and numerous Iraqi officials and clerics. A planned meeting with Grand Ayatollah Sistani in Najaf never took place; Sadr was not on the schedule.
"We had a firm message for the Iranians across the board ... to be constructive, not destructive," said CPA spokesman Dan Senor. "There is no role for the Iranians, from our perspective, in the Sadr situation [which] should be resolved by Iraqis."
"There is no doubt, bad or good, Iran has some influence in Iraq," counters Davoud Hermidas Bavand, a professor with Iran's official Center for Political and International Studies in Tehran. He says Iran has been "accommodating" of US interests. "If [America] is faced with ever increasing difficulties, they will look for a scapegoat."
US officials have long suggested that Sadr receives direct support from Iran's Revolutionary Guard and Lebanon's Hizbullah. One London-based Al-Sharq al-Awsat newspaper quoted what it called a Revolutionary Guard source who described three military camps on the Iran-Iraq border for up to 1,200Mahdi army recruits.
Sadr's theological link to Iran is clear: he follows hard-line Iranian Ayatollah Kazem al-Haeri, who was appointed successor to his popular father, killed by Baathists in 1999.
But experts say the al-Haeri-Sadr link is overblown. "I don't think Moqtada Sadr is taking directions from [Iran's religious center] Qom or Tehran. I think he is independent from Iran," writes David Patel, a political scientist at Stanford University, who has been conducting research in southern Iraq. "If the Iranian hardliners wanted to back a player in Iraq, it would be one of the large SCIRI/Badr [Shiite exile groups once based in Iran] offices, not Moqtada Sadr."
Even Sadr's mentor in Iran called for Iraqis to "observe patience."