Iran sways Iraqis with food, aid

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

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.

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'être 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

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.

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.

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