Saturday, May 27, 2006

Knight-Ridder: Iranian-Backed Militia Groups Take Control Of Southern Iraq

By going to war with Iraq and taking down Saddam, the United States helped propel Iran into the major player in the region. By taking down Saddam and allowing Iran to have great influence in the southern part of Iraq, we have created a future fundamentalist Islamic state and probable conflcit between Sunni-Arab and Shiite-Arab countries. So reports Tom Lasseter at Knight-Ridder:

BASRA, Iraq - Southern Iraq, long touted as a peaceful region that's likely to be among the first areas returned to Iraqi control, is now dominated by Shiite Muslim warlords and militiamen who are laying the groundwork for an Islamic fundamentalist government, say senior British and Iraqi officials in the area.

The militias appear to be supported by Iranian intelligence or military units that are shipping weapons to the militias in Iraq and providing training for them in Iran.

Some British officials believe the Iranians want to hasten the withdrawal of U.S.-backed coalition forces to pave the way for Iran-friendly clerical rule.

Iranian influence is evident throughout the area. In one government office, an aide approached a Knight Ridder reporter and, mistaking him for an Iranian, said, "Don't be afraid to speak Farsi in Basra. We are a branch of Iran."

"We get an idea that (military training) courses are being run" in Iran, said Lt. Col. David Labouchere, who commands British units in the province of Maysan, north of Basra. "People are training on the other side of the border and then coming back."

British military officials suspect that the missile that was used to shoot down a British helicopter over Basra on May 6 came from Iran. Five British soldiers died.

"We had intelligence suggesting five surface-to-air missile systems being brought over from Iran only seven days before it went down," said Maj. Rob Yuill, a British officer based in Basra.

Yuill said that the information suggested that the missiles were destined for the Mahdi Army, the militia loyal to radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr. Bassem al-Samir, a senior official in the Sadr office in Basra, denied that his organization was involved in the helicopter attack.

Another Sadr official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity for fear of retribution from other Sadrists, said that while the Mahdi Army wasn't responsible, "the missile was shot by an Iranian-trained group."

American military officials in Baghdad often point to the relatively low number of attacks against British soldiers in southern Iraq as proof that much of the country is stable.

Last month, however, at least 200 people were killed in Basra, almost all of them by militia violence, according to an Iraqi Defense Ministry official there.

A week with British troops in Maysan and Basra provinces and three additional days of reporting in the city of Basra made it clear that Iraqis here are at the mercy of Shiite militia death squads and Iran-friendly clerics who have imposed an ever-stricter code of de facto Islamic law.


Iraq's top Shiites acknowledge that they want to set up a regional government in the south, but they insist that the provinces involved would remain loyal to the central government in Baghdad. But an Iran-friendly Shiite government in the south could have far-reaching effects on Iraq and the Persian Gulf region and on the strategic position of U.S. military forces in the country.

U.S. forces are dependent on a fragile re-supply line that runs from Kuwait north to Baghdad through southern Iraq. A regional government allied with Iran could pose a risk to that supply line.

Such a government also would further agitate Iraq's Sunni and Kurdish minorities, which could fragment the country, a development that Western analysts fear would destabilize the region.

A Shiite regional government might also greatly enhance Iran's regional influence by giving it a strategic Shiite partner with vast amounts of oil in a Middle East dominated by Sunni-run countries. Neighboring Kuwait's population is about one-third Shiite, and Bahrain and Saudi Arabia's oil-rich Eastern Province are majority Shiite.

Already, there are signs that neighboring Sunni countries are pumping resources to small Sunni factions in Basra to combat Iranian influence, said a senior Iraqi Ministry of Defense official in Basra. The official spoke on the condition of anonymity because he feared for his life.

"Saudi Arabia is trying to counter the rising power of Iran in Basra by giving money and weapons to fanatical Sunni groups operating there," the official said.

In much the same way that Kurdish leaders and militia units in the north have made control of the oil-rich city of Kirkuk a top priority for their region, Shiites have identified Basra as the economic engine of Iraq's Shiite south. Basra is near Iraq's largest oil fields, with billions of dollars in proven reserves, and is home to the only shipping port in Iraq.

While the Bush administration makes all kinds of threats at Iran over their nuclear ambitions, the Iraqi government endorses the right of Iran to pursue the "technological and scientific capabilities" needed to create nuclear power and Iran funds and/or trains the Iran-friendly Shiite militia groups that will run the southern part of Iraq after the British leave.

Which part of the administration's Iran/Iraq policy seems sane?

If they were worried about Iran having undue influence in the region, it seems to me that leaving Saddam in power in Iraq was one way of limiting Iranian power.

Sure, Saddam was a problem (and yes, murderous to his own people.) But surely the situation we have now with an emboldened Iran ready to subsume southern Iraq into its grasp and pursue nuclear weapons in order to deter a Western attack is much more worriesome than a contained Saddam still in power ever was.


And after all, it is up to a people to determine their freedom. Countries can help a movement, but to "free" a country absent a clear attack from that country (read Japan and/or Germany) usually leads to total chaos.

I don't believe this "police action" can work in its present state.

Oh, and when do we declare Saudi Arabia a terrorist state for supplying the Sunni insurgency?

They have really boxed themselves in with this "not doing business with states who fund terrorism" policy. What happens when someone proves that the Saudis are funding the Sunnis?

Then what?
It feels like the seeds for a larger Sunni-Shiite conflict outside the borders of Iraq have been sown by the administration here I find that possibility pretty scary. And you're right, praguetwin, that the admninistration's reaction to a Saudi Arabaia funding/arming Sunni militias inside Iraq will be hypocritical. The admin will scream about Iran and Syria putting their feet into the kiddie pool that is Iraq these days, but I bet they ignore the Saudi's actions.

Geez, what a mess - a self-created mess.
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