Friday, August 13, 2004

Asia Times - Iraq and Iran swap blows

Asia Times - Asia's most trusted news source for the Middle East: "Middle East

Iraq and Iran swap blows
By Safa Haeri

PARIS - Already clouded, relations between Iran and neighboring Iraq have darkened further in the past week with the kidnapping of an Iranian diplomat and arrest of intelligence officers, and renewed charges by Iraqi officials that the Islamic Republic is interfering in Iraq's internal affairs.

On Monday, Hazem Sha'lan, the Iraqi Defense Minister, again described Iran as Iraq's "number one" enemy and accused Tehran of sending weapons to followers of Muqtada al-Sadr, the rebel Shi'ite cleric fighting US-led forces in Iraq, with the flashpoint being the holy city of Najaf. Sha'lan accused Iran of "clear interference in Iraq", including taking over some Iraqi border posts and sending in spies and saboteurs.

Earlier, the Iraqi Interior Ministry announced the arrest of four Iranian intelligence officers, saying they had been detained in Baghdad on suspicion of spying and carrying out acts of sabotage in the country.

Fighting between the defiant Muqtada, who many sources in both Baghdad and Tehran insist is backed by Iran's ruling ayatollahs against US forces and Iraqi police, broke out seven days ago in Najaf, Diwaniyaah and Baghdad, leaving more than 400 people dead and wounded, most of them from Muqtada's Mehdi Army.

On Thursday, US marines, backed by aircraft, battled militia dug in at a cemetery in Najaf, a day after the military said it would launch an offensive to end the rebellion once and for all.

In response, an official of the Mehdi Army, Sheik Asaad al-Basri, has warned that militiamen will blow up pipelines in the south if US forces try to storm their Najaf bases - a statement that has sent the price of oil on global markets to record highs of more than US$45 a barrel.

Most of Muqtada's militia and the cleric himself are dug in around Najaf's ancient Shi'ite cemetery and the adjoining Imam Ali Shrine. Storming such holy symbols could touch off a widespread reaction among Iraq's majority Shi'ite community.

Meanwhile in Baghdad, fighters from the Mehdi Army now appear almost entirely in control of the vast slum of Sadr City, a predominantly Shi'ite neighborhood of 2 million people. Formerly named Saddam City, it was renamed for Muqtada's father, a senior Shi'ite cleric killed by suspected agents of Saddam Hussein in 1999. Dozens of junior clerics in the slum have gained popularity by restoring services and security after Saddam's fall.

Angered by Sha'lan's accusations, Iran on Sunday summoned Iraq's charge d'affaires in Tehran to substantiate claims of Iranian involvement in Iraq. "Today we summoned the Iraqi charge d'affaires to ask him to give us proof," foreign affairs senior spokesman Hamid Reza Asefi said, adding that Iraqi officials should also "stop creating a bad atmosphere" between Iran and Iraq.

Iran has yet to recognize the Iraqi interim government formally, put in place by the United States on June 28 pending elections in January, and which has been described by Iranian supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei as "lackeys" of the Americans.

Sha'lan told the Arabic television station al-Arabiyah that Iranian-made weapons had been found on Mehdi Army fighters, and warned Muqtada's men to put down their arms or face "extinction".

Adnan al-Zurufi, the governor of Najaf, backed Sha'lan's accusations, claiming that 80 men fighting US forces in Najaf had been found to be Iranian. "There is Iranian support for [Muqtada] al-Sadr's group, and this is no secret," he said.

In response, Muqtada has said he will fight US and British invaders to his "last drop of blood", and Iran has denied allegations that it is arming militia groups in Najaf. "I will continue fighting," the cleric told reporters in Najaf. "I will remain in Najaf city until the last drop of my blood has been spilled. Resistance will continue and increase day by day," he said. "Our demand is for the American occupation to get out of Iraq. We want an independent, democratic, free country."

For his part, Iranian Defense Minister Ali Shamkhani said Sha'lan is a political amateur with little experience and that he lacks the minimum qualifications for knowing the truth. "The weapons [Sha'lan] claims are made in Iran have in fact been in Iraq since the [Iran-Iraq] war [of 1980-88]. Similarly, one can find many Iraqi arms in Iran," the minister explained in an interview with an Arabic television station.

In an interview with the Kuwaiti daily newspaper al-Anba, Sha'lan - whom the Iranian press and lawmakers describe as a "petty CIA [US Central Intelligence Agency] informer" - also urged Iran to send back 130 Iraqi planes, 30 of them Boeing passenger aircraft and the rest jet fighters and bombers - most of them Russian-made, but also some French-made Mirages. This is in reference to the thorny problem of the planes Saddam sent to Iran to save them from destruction during the first Gulf War in 1991.

Tehran insists that only 22 military planes were sent to Iran, with some of them badly damaged in landing. But it says it is ready to return them if asked by the United Nations. "We will discuss these issues with the coming elected government officials, and not with the interim government," an obviously angry Asefi added.

Relations between the two countries have also been complicated by the kidnapping of Fereydoun Jahani, an Iranian diplomat due to open a consulate in the holy city of Karbala, by a group calling itself the Islamic Army in Iraq. According to the group as quoted by an Arabic television station, Jahani is an officer in the Iranian Revolutionary Guards' intelligence detained for "stirring sectarian strife and for activities outside his diplomatic duties".

Iranian officials have confirmed that Jahani "disappeared" on Wednesday, and explained that they had withheld the news of the kidnapping in the hope of having him freed. When asked about identity cards displayed on television establishing the so-called diplomat as an intelligence officer, Abdollah Ramezanzadeh, the government's official spokesman, said, "It is very easy to fabricate an identity card, as easy as making a film."

Some conservative lawmakers and press in Iran have accused both the Americans and Sha'lan of being behind Jahani's kidnapping, observing that the warning issued by the group (over alleged Iranian meddling) is the same as that used by US Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, implying US involvement. "It is interesting to note that so far the group has not kidnapped any Americans or Westerners, but Muslims," one newspaper said.

But unlike the case of Khalil Na'imi, the Iranian attache who was assassinated last year in Baghdad by gunmen who have remained unknown, Jahani's abduction has a mark and destination: Iran. Ghodratollah Alikhani of the majlis' (parliament's) National Security and Foreign Policy Committee told Mehr News Agency that it was highly probable that the US had a hand in the kidnapping. "The US pursues its own political goals through the issue," he said.

Hoseyn Shari'atmadari, appointed by Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei as the managing director of the Tehran daily Keyhan, said on Monday that supporters of the occupation of Iraq were the only people who had a motive to commit the crime. "There is evidence indicating that the kidnappers were US forces," he told the pro-conservative Mehr agency, adding that Iran was the main obstacle preventing the US from realizing its goals in the Middle East and the strongest opponent of the occupation of Iraq.

"This gave the US a significant motive to kidnap the Iranian diplomat. The kidnappers, in a recorded videotape broadcast by the al-Arabiyah network, demanded that Iran refrain from interfering in Iraq's internal affairs, and this is the same accusation that US Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, US Secretary of State Colin Powell and Iraqi Defense Minister Hazem Sha'lan made against Iran a few days earlier."

Government spokesman Asefi pointed out, "We have announced one too many times that we are not interfering in Iraq. We are looking forward to the security and stability of Iraq. As far as these accusations, we want to hear from Iraqi interim Prime Minister Iyad Allawi."

In remarks to the press, Allawi has indicated that among all Iraq's neighbors, Iran is the only country that has not invited him officially to visit. "I'm willing to go to Tehran and discuss all issues with our Iranian friends, but on condition I'm invited," he said last weekend, referring to press reports that he had received an invitation but turned it down. (On Tuesday, Iran's official Islamic Republic News Agency, IRNA, quoted Kamal Kharrazi, Iran's foreign affairs minister, as saying an invitation had been sent to Allawi.)

Since the renewal of fighting between the Mehdi Army and the US-led coalition forces, Iran has constantly and vigorously taken the side of the rebel cleric, accusing the Americans of "slaughtering innocent Iraqi Muslims and deliberately destroying Shi'ite holy places".

The daily Keyhan, which speaks for Khamenei, wrote on Monday that Sha'lan was a "dyed-in-the-wool Ba'athist whose hands are dipped deep in the innocent blood of Iraqi and Iranian Muslims", and accused him of being "hand-picked by the American occupiers for his services to the CIA".

According to the hardline newspaper, the Americans and the British had moved Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, the Shi'ites' highest religious authority, away from Najaf to facilitate the "slaughter" of "unprotected" Iraqi Shi'ites and Muslims. The Iranian-born Sistani is suffering from heart problems and flew to London last week for medical treatment.

Writing in the pro-conservative English-language daily Tehran Times on Tuesday, Hasan Hamidzadeh said, "The recent provocative remarks by the Iraqi interior minister and defense minister as well as the governor of Najaf against the Islamic Republic of Iran, which are only meant to serve the occupiers, encouraged the terrorist groups to kidnap the Iranian diplomat. Unfortunately, this dangerous move took place at a time when certain members of the Iraqi interim government paved the grounds for such a move through their uncalculated remarks, which were a far cry from diplomatic norms."

Tehran is also angry that the Americans helped members of the Mujahideen Khalq Organization, the group that is based in Iraq and served the toppled Saddam's regime fighting Iran, being granted the status of war prisoners and thus covered by the Geneva Conventions, despite the fact that the organization is categorized as a terrorist group by the US.

To complicate the tense atmosphere further, Ahmad Chalabi, the head of the Iraqi National Congress, was in Iran at the very time that a warrant for his arrest was issued in Baghdad this week on charges of illegal currency dealings.

Once the darling of the Pentagon, Chalabi, 59, was abandoned abruptly by his US backers after the CIA accused him more than a month ago of having passed on to the Iranians the vital information that the agency had broken Iran's highly secret communications code.

Not only is Chalabi accused of fraud and dealing in currency, Jordan also wants him in connection with the bankruptcy of Patra Bank in 1992, in which some US$20 million went missing. Chalabi has been convicted in absentia and given a lengthy jail term.

As if all these charges are not enough, the former banker, who comes from a prominent Shi'ite family, is also known for his staunch opposition to both Lakhdar Brahimi, the United Nations special envoy for Iraq on the one hand, and Allawi on the other.

Sources in the Iraqi interim government also suspect that Chalabi is helping fund the Mehdi Army and serving as an intermediary between Tehran and Muqtada.

According to most political analysts, what Sha'lan has said against Tehran translates the general belief of most Iraqi officials, including some Shi'ite members of government. This might explain the sudden hardening of Tehran's attitude toward Allawi's interim government.

"Sha'lan's opinion is shared by almost all members of the government," one contact told Asia Times Online, adding, on condition of anonymity, that some of the clerical leadership in Iran close to Khamenei, such as in the Revolutionary Guards and in his own secret services, are "doing their best to prevent a new, democratic and secular political order contrary to theirs emerging in Iraq".

According to Iranian journalists, Allawi's recent visit to Najaf and his call on Muqtada to lay down arms means that the conflict in Iraq is becoming "Iraqized", meaning pitting Iraqis against Iraqis. "But the end losers would be the Iraqi Shi'ites," one Tehran journalist told Asia Times Online.

To make matter worse, the Iraqi police have raided the offices of IRNA in Baghdad and arrested Mostafa Darban, the bureau chief, and three Iraqi colleagues. Though there has been no official explanation from Iraqi authorities, sources told Asia Times Online that the measure could be related to the fighting in Najaf, as the Iranian media have taken a strong position in favor of Muqtada, deliberately ignoring that he refuses to stop hostilities."

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