The Americans may think they will have peace in eight
months. But, even if they stay eighteen years, we will never give them
peace." Sheik Muhammad Al Abadi, a member of the Badr Corps, the
more radical military wing of the Supreme Council for the Islamic
Revolution in Iraq (sciri), an Islamist
political group, didn't mince words as we sat in January at his home in
the southern Iraqi city of Al Amarah. At the time, I was seconded to the
Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) in Iraq from the Pentagon, where I
had been an Iran and Iraq policy adviser. Al Abadi's walls were
decorated with a picture of his late older brother and a large portrait
of Iran's Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini. An older man whispered to Al
Abadi that I was American, and the bespectacled thirtysomething changed
the subject. Several months later, the sheik's prophecy would come true,
and widespread violence would erupt throughout southern Iraq.
Since the violence began, American officials and the media have
blamed the bloodshed on poor postwar planning, miscalculations of the
strength of radical cleric Moqtada Al Sadr, and even Shia anger at
Iraq's new provisional constitution (see Joshua Hammer, "Preoccupied").
But there's another factor largely unappreciated by the U.S. media and
unchallenged by the CPA: the well-organized, highly effective
infiltration of Shia into Iraq by the government of Iran.
The Iranian security apparatus, having sparred with
American forces in Bosnia and Afghanistan, was well-prepared to
challenge the United States in Iraq. Almost a month before the opening
salvos of the war, the Islamic republic began broadcasting
Arabic-language television across the border. As U.S.-led coalition
forces fought Saddam Hussein's fedayeen in Basra and advanced on Najaf
in March 2003, units of the Badr Corps poured into northern Iraq from
Iran, where sciri was based, provoking a
strong warning to Tehran by Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld.
According to an April 25, 2003, report by well-connected Iranian
journalist Ali Reza Nurizadeh in the London-based Arabic daily Al-Sharq
Al-Awsat, elite Iranian Revolutionary Guards "brought in radio
transmission equipment, posters, pamphlets printed in [the Iranian holy
city of] Qom, and huge amounts of money, some of which was used to buy
weapons for the Badr Corps."
I arrived in Baghdad in July 2003. With temperatures soaring to 120
degrees Fahrenheit, most CPA staff remained inside air-conditioned
headquarters, located in a former Saddam palace. Junior American
diplomats tended to stay at their desks, while ambassadors traveled in
armored cars among well-armed personal security details. What was good
for security, however, was bad for political intelligence. After 35
years of dictatorship, Iraqis avoided talking to armed men, and the CPA
staffers, penned up in their palace complex and out of touch with
average Iraqis, missed evidence of increasing Iranian influence.
My first night in Baghdad, several Iraqis intercepted me in the
Rashid Hotel lobby. Three years before, I had taught for a year in Iraqi
Kurdistan; friends had planned a reunion. We talked, ate, and drank
until shortly before the 10 p.m. curfew; throughout the evening, Arabs
and Kurds alike warned that Iranian intelligence was taking advantage of
the U.S. failure to secure Iraq's borders. Later that month, several
Iraqis warned me that over 10,000 Iranians had entered Iraq. Coalition
officials I spoke to seemed unconcerned, suggesting that the influx was
simply Iraqi refugees returning home. But these American diplomats
seemed unable to differentiate between returnees speaking Iraqi Arabic
and people proficient in Persian, who spoke little or no Arabic; many of
the Iranians coming into the country fell into the latter category.
Over subsequent months, I frequently visited the Iranian frontier.
Traveling back roads along a smugglers' route in Iraqi Kurdistan, I
encountered no U.S. patrols within 100 miles of the border, though
American officials had vowed to police the frontiers. And, when I
returned to Baghdad, I saw the results of open borders. I often visited
Sadr City, a sprawling Shia slum named for Moqtada Al Sadr's slain
father. Among posters of Moqtada Al Sadr, Khomeini, and other religious
figures, hawkers sold everything from U.S. Agency for International
Development rations to stolen cars to forged documents, such as
passports and manifests. Safe-passage documents for traveling from Iran
to Iraq cost only $50.
Sadr himself has become a recipient of Iranian cash. Iran's charge
d'affaires in Baghdad, Hassan Kazemi Qomi, maintains close relations
with Sadr. According to the April 6 edition of the Arabic newspaper al-Hayat,
Qomi is not actually a diplomat but rather a member of the Revolutionary
Guards, the elite Iranian terrorist network dedicated to the export of
jihad; Qomi previously served as a liaison to Hezbollah. Meanwhile,
Italian intelligence reports show that many Revolutionary Guards have
moved to southern Iraq in recent months to organize and train Sadr's
armed wing. This Iranian operation reportedly hides its true intentions
under the guise of religious charities in Karbala, Najaf, and Kufa,
while financial support is channeled to Sadr through Ayatollah Kazem Al
Haeri, a Qom-based cleric and close confidant of Iran's supreme leader,
Ali Khamenei. (The Office of the Supreme Leader retains a budget for
which Khamenei is not accountable to Iran's president or parliament.)
Italian intelligence has identified one of Haeri's students as
Khamenei's personal representative to Sadr.
Sadr is not the only Islamist Shia leader receiving aid from Tehran.
When I visited Nasiriya, a dusty town in southern Iraq, local clerics
complained bitterly about Iranian intelligence officials swarming into
town, creating a network of informers and funneling money to anti-U.S.
forces. At a town-hall meeting in Nasiriya last October, tribal leaders
repeatedly condemned the United States for failing to confront the
"hidden hand"--Iranians coming into the city.
By January, the anti-U.S. Badr Corps, trained and financed by Iran's
Revolutionary Guards, had established a large office on Nasiriya's
riverfront promenade. Below murals of Khomeini and the late Ayatollah
Mohammad Bakr Al Hakim hung banners declaring, no
to america, no to israel, no to occupation. Two blocks away in
the central market, vendors sold posters not of moderate Iraqi Grand
Ayatollah Ali Al Sistani, but of Supreme Leader Khamenei. By January
2004, Zainab Al Suwaij, the granddaughter of Basra's leading religious
figure, was reporting that Hezbollah, which has close ties to the
Revolutionary Guards, was operating openly in southern towns like
Nasiriya and Basra, helping to stir up violence. The next day, at his
daily press briefing, State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said,
"No, I don't know anything about Hamas and Hezbollah in Iraq. ...
We'll stop them if we can get them." Coincidentally, I visited
Basra on January 14 without informing the local CPA coordinator. One
block from the main market, sciri and
Hezbollah had established a joint office. A large Lebanese Hezbollah
flag fluttered in the wind.
The Iranian government has not limited its support to a single
faction or party. Rather, Tehran's strategy appears to be to support
both the radicals seeking immediate confrontation with the U.S.
occupation and Islamist political parties like sciri
and Ibrahim Jafari's Dawa Party, which are willing to sit on the
U.S.-backed Iraqi Governing Council and engage with Washington, at least
in the short term. The Iranian journalist Nurizadeh wrote in April 2003,
"[President Mohammed] Khatami [and other Iranian political leaders]
... were surprised by the decision issued above their heads to send into
Iraq more than 2,000 fighters, clerics, and students [to] the Supreme
Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq and al-Da'wah Party." My own
experience backed up his claims. This February, I spoke with a local
governor from southern Iraq who wanted to meet me after he learned that
I lived and worked outside CPA headquarters. The governor complained
that the CPA was doing little to stop the influx of Iranian money to
district councilmen and prominent tribal and religious officials. The
money, he said, was distributed through Dawa offices established after a
meeting between Jafari and Iranian security officials.
Twice in the last twelve years, large-scale Iranian destabilization
efforts have confronted U.S. military interventions. In Bosnia, after
significant internal debate, George H.W. Bush's administration chose to
block Iranian infiltration, risking revenge attacks against the United
States by Iranian-linked terrorists. In September 1992, Tehran attempted
to ship 4,000 guns, one million rounds of ammunition, and several dozen
fighters to Bosnia. An Iranian Boeing 747 landed in Zagreb, where, in
response to U.S. pressure, the Croatian military impounded the weapons
and expelled the jihadis. Today, there is little threat of radical anti-U.S.
Islamism in Bosnia.
Almost a decade later, the current Bush administration identified an
Iranian challenge in Afghanistan. Speaking before the American-Iranian
Council on March 13, 2002, Zalmay Khalilzad, senior National Security
Council adviser for the Middle East and Southwest Asia, declared,
"The Iranian regime has sent some Qods forces associated with its
Revolutionary Guards to parts of Afghanistan. ... Iranian officials have
provided military and financial support to regional parties without the
knowledge and consent of the Afghan Interim Authority." Rather than
combat this Iranian challenge, the Bush administration chose diplomacy.
"Notwithstanding our criticism of Iranian policy, the U.S. remains
open to dialogue," Khalilzad continued. Today, visitors to Herat, a
main city in western Afghanistan, consider Iranian influence there to be
In the wake of Sadr's uprising, Washington is faced with the same
choice: End Iran's infiltration through forceful action, or wish it
away. How long can we afford to keep choosing the latter?