The Washington Times

Iranians move in to shape new Iraq

April 26, 2003
Section: PAGE ONE

Page: A01


Caption: An Iraqi girl greeted a U.S. soldier from Alpha Company, 37th Infantry, during his foot patrol in downtown Baghdad yesterday. [Photo by AP]

Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld said yesterday that Iran has dispatched "organized elements" to Iraq in a bid to influence the creation of an Islamist system.

"There's no question but that the government of Iran has encouraged people to go into the country, and that they have people in the country attempting to influence the country," Mr. Rumsfeld told reporters at the Pentagon.

Mr. Rumsfeld also said that a large number of Iraqis, Syrians and other foreign nationals have been "scooped up" in Iraq, including 12 of the 55 most-wanted officials of Saddam Hussein's ousted regime.

Mr. Rumsfeld leaves today for his first trip to Iraq since the war began. He also will visit the United Arab Emirates, Afghanistan, Qatar, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait. Stops in Iraq will include visits to Basra and Baghdad.

Asked about the trip, Mr. Rumsfeld said yesterday: "I may very well take a trip. I'm not inclined to announce where or when."

Iran has many Shi'ite Muslims, raising the fear in Washington that Tehran is seeking to use religious ties to influence Iraq's Shi'ite Muslim population - who make up a majority of the country's inhabitants.

Regarding Iran's efforts to influence developments in postwar Iraq, the defense secretary said that Iraqi Shi'ite Muslims "are Iraqis, and the Shi'a outside the country, from Iran, are Persians."

"And my guess is that the Iraqi people will prefer to be governed by Iraqis and not by Persians," Mr. Rumsfeld said. Iraq and Iran fought a bitter war in the 1980s.

Asked to provide details on Iranian activities in Iraq, Mr. Rumsfeld said: "You know, they have organized elements that they send into the country to attempt to assert influence."

Other U.S. officials said there are intelligence reports that those involved in subversive activities in Iraq include Iranians backed by the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps, military shock troops that have been linked in the past to support for international terrorism.

Elements of Iran's Ministry of Intelligence and Security also are involved in the efforts to support Iraqi Shi'ites, the officials said.

Officials said the subversion is similar to Iranian efforts to destabilize Afghanistan after the ouster of the ruling Taliban militia in December 2001.

Iran's government has denied sending its agents to Iraq. Iranian Foreign Minister Kamal Kharrazi said on Thursday in Tehran that U.S. charges of Iranian subversion were groundless.

"It is very interesting that Americans have occupied Iraq and are now accusing its neighbor of interfering in that country," Mr. Kharrazi said, according to the official IRNA news agency. "This accusation is baseless."

Mr. Rumsfeld said the recent pilgrimage of more than 1 million Iraqi Shi'ites to Karbala was "an important accomplishment" because it was a sign of free expression and religious liberty "returning to Iraq."

As for pro-Iranian sentiment among some of the country's militant Shi'ites, Mr. Rumsfeld said that Iraqis will not be permitted to establish an Islamic state modeled on neighboring Iran.

"This much is certain: A vocal minority clamoring to transform Iraq in Iran's image will not be permitted to do so. We will not allow the Iraqi people's democratic transition to be hijacked by those who might wish to install another form of dictatorship," he said.

The large-scale religious demonstration in Karbala has raised fears among some U.S. officials that a post-Saddam Iraq could adopt a fundamentalist Islamic ideology, such as the one prevalent in Iran.

Army Brig. Gen. David McKiernan, a commander of ground forces in Iraq, said on Wednesday that during the transition from dictatorship to democracy in Iraq "there are several competing interests" in the country working to shape the future government.

The factions include both Shi'ite and Sunni Muslims and others, he said.

"Right now, the Shi'a and any Iranian-influenced Shi'a actions are not an overt threat to coalition forces, but we're watching all these competing interests," he said. "And if truth be known, this is probably a little bit of democracy in process right now here in Iraq."

Retired Army Lt. Gen. Jay Garner, the interim civilian administrator in Iraq, was asked on Thursday if U.S. forces may be helping to create an Iranian-style Islamic republic in Iraq.

"That's the most ridiculous thing I ever heard in my life," said Mr. Garner.

Air Force Gen. Richard B. Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said U.S. and allied forces are fighting pockets of resistance in parts of Iraq.

Gen. Myers, appearing with Mr. Rumsfeld, said that despite the resistance "life throughout a liberated Iraq is returning to some semblance of normalcy."

The resistance has come from guerrillas and "foreign fighters," said Gen. Myers.

Yesterday, 20 to 30 Iraqi paramilitary fighters attacked a coalition patrol northwest of Mosul, in the north.

Several of the enemy fighters were killed.

In Baghdad, two guerrilla fighters attacked U.S. soldiers and one of the Iraqis was killed and the second was captured.

Mr. Rumsfeld also said U.S. officials are continuing the search for Navy Capt. Michael Scott Speicher, a pilot missing since the 1991 Persian Gulf war.

He said there is a team that has been assigned to locate the missing Navy pilot.

"They're working the problem. They're talking to people. They're investigating sites where he may or may not have been. And we are always concerned and anxious to bring back and account for every American - indeed, every coalition member," said Mr. Rumsfeld.

Searchers also are looking for Kuwaiti prisoners of war held in Iraq since the 1991 war.

As for the hunt for Iraq's chemical, biological and nuclear weapons, Mr. Rumsfeld said sites are being searched.

"On a continuing basis, we get a report out of known sites," he said. "And it's still a long road. I mean, we're at a small fraction of the number of potential sites."