Sunday, November 07, 2004

Boston.com /Along border, Kurds say, Iran gives boost to uprising Part 1

Boston.com / News / World / Middle East / Along border, Kurds say, Iran gives boost to uprising: "Along border, Kurds say, Iran gives boost to uprising
By Thanassis Cambanis, Globe Staff | November 7, 2004

TUWELLA, Iraq -- A dirt track winds from this Kurdish border outpost to the top of a jagged mountain ridge separating Iran from Iraq's northern Kurdish enclave.

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For years, and with the blessing of Iranian officials, Islamist terrorist groups have smuggled weapons and money into Iraq on this road, many Kurdish intelligence and security officials said. When US special forces and Kurdish peshmerga fighters attacked Ansar al-Islam, an Al Qaeda affiliate, in March 2003, hundreds of its members fled to Iran, the officials said, and have regrouped in several towns just over this border.

There, they continue to train, raise funds, and plan terrorist operations in Iraq, infiltrating operatives across a porous, rocky, high-altitude border that has long been a haven for smugglers and that, in practical terms, is impossible to police, the Kurdish officials say.

Iraqi and US officials have grumbled for more than a year about what they perceive as Iranian interference in Iraq. Iran has repeatedly and forcefully denied any such interference.

But here in the mountains of Kurdistan, the Kurdish officials point to what they say are tangible footprints of Iran's collaboration with terror and insurgent groups responsible for attacks inside Iraq.

According to a half-dozen officials in the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, known as the PUK, which controls the southern half of the Kurdistan region of Iraq, and commanders in the peshmerga, the force that provides security in the region, Iran has extended its network of agents inside Iraq.

Iran, the officials say, continues to aid groups like Ansar al-Islam and Abu Musab al-Zarqawi's group, now named Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia.

Even though Iran is a Shi'ite theocracy, these officials said, it helps Sunni insurgent groups because it wants to prevent a strong unified government from taking shape in Iraq.

"They go back and forth after running missions here," said Anwar Haji Othman, head of security in the area around Halabja, including a long stretch of the Iranian border. "They bring cash from Iran to Iraq across the border."

Iran denies supporting Iraqi insurgents, and has declared its support for a peaceful, democratic Iraq. Tehran has argued that an unstable, violent neighbor would undermine Iran's security.

Iraqi and Iranian officials have met repeatedly, and have pledged to work closely on security matters.

At Iraq's request, Iran stopped tens of thousands of Iranian Shi'ite pilgrims who were flooding across the border to visit Iraq's shrine cities -- and bringing with them crime, infiltrators, and drug dealers, some Iraqi officials say.

Tensions have flared publicly. This summer, in widely repeated comments, the Iraqi defense minister, Hazem Shaalan, called Iran his country's "first enemy," and said Tehran's policies had "added fuel to the fire."

American officials have warned Iran against interfering in its neighbors affairs, but have sent mixed signals about whether they believe Iran's government is helping insurgents. Many top officials, including Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld and Secretary of State Colin L. Powell, have called Iran's activities unhelpful, but General John Abizaid emphasized in April that "there are elements within Iran that are urging patience." Continued..."

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