THE battle for power in Iraq has begun. An Iranian-sponsored Shiite group claimed yesterday to have taken control of the country's second largest city, Basra, and there are unconfirmed reports of demonstrations in a number of other towns in the southern part of the country. A spokesman for the Shiite group said that the group had beaten back an attempt by government troops to drive the rebels out, according to Reuters.
The group says it is allied to Mohammed Baqr Hakim, a Shiite cleric who heads a Tehran-based alliance of small Islamic parties known as the Supreme Assembly of the Islamic Revolution in Iraq. The alliance was set up in the early 1980s to spearhead Iran's effort to export Islamic revolution to its secular neighbor.
Mr. Hakim's religious credentials are impeccable, and he commands support in the Shiite dominated south and Basra. His father, Mehdi Hakim, was executed by the Baathist party.
Earlier, there were unconfirmed reports that Iran had infiltrated some 30,000 Iraqi Shiites back through the southern Iranian border. In the mid-1970s, President Saddam Hussein deported some 200,000 Iraqi Shia, in an effort to lessen the Shiite population in the south. Iran also hosts a large number of former prisoners of war who refused to return to Iraq when the war ended.
Another party said to be active in the upheaval in Basra is the Al Dawa party, a small Islamic group which has conducted a campaign of terrorism against Baathists in Baghdad.
At present, it is unclear whether a reported push by Hakim's forces in southern cities has been coordinated with other opposition forces in the country. There have been unconfirmed reports that the upheaval in southern towns may be followed by a similar move by the Kurdish groups operating in the north. Iraqis in exile say coordination with other forces is vital if Iraq is to avoid being carved up along ethnic and political lines. Iraq's southern flank could end up dominated by the Islamic Shia group s and in the north by Kurdish powers, leaving Saddam to rule areas dominated by Sunni Muslims. Saddam's Baathist leadership is mostly Sunni.
There is growing speculation among both Iraqis in exile and Arab circles that Arab members of the coalition - Syria, Egypt, and Saudi Arabia - are considering forming a provisional government as part of a Free Iraq.
The Syrians have hosted several Iraqi opposition parties for decades including Kurdish groups, democratic parties, and the old Communist Party of Iraq. But in recent weeks, Saudi Arabia has negotiated with another group of some 30 individuals with a view, political observers believe, toward sewing up a more right-wing opposition front which could set up an alternative military regime. A number of these personalities are former Baathist ministers and military generals. The two groups of opposition lea ders are scheduled to meet in a public conference in Beirut on March 12. However, a Riyadh-based opposition source said that the real talks will be going on in Damascus in the next few days. The Damascus meeting is to decide whether to set up a provisional government-in-exile or to set it up in the region of Iraq held by allied forces.