22 November 2004
By Edward T. Pound
In the summer of last year, Iranian intelligence agents in Tehran began planning something quite spectacular for September 11, the two-year anniversary of al Qaeda's attack on the United States, according to a classified American intelligence report. Iranian agents disbursed $20,000 to a team of assassins, the report said, to kill Paul Bremer, then the top U.S. civilian administrator in Iraq. The information was specific: The team, said a well-placed source quoted in the intelligence document, would use a Toyota Corona taxi and a second car, driven by suicide bombers, to take out Bremer and destroy two hotels in downtown Baghdad. The source even named one of the planners, Himin Bani Shari, a high-ranking member of the Ansar al-Islam terrorist group and a known associate of Iranian intelligence agents.
The alleged plan was never carried out. But American officials regarded Iran's reported role, and its ability to make trouble in Iraq, as deadly serious. Iran, said a separate report, issued in November 2003 by American military analysts, "will use and support proxy groups" such as Ansar al-Islam "to conduct attacks in Iraq in an attempt to further destablize the country." An assessment by the U.S. Army's V Corps, which then directed all Army activity in Iraq, agreed: "Iranian intelligence continues to prod and facilitate the infiltration of Iraq with their subversive elements while providing them support once they are in country."
With the Pentagon's stepped-up efforts to break the back of the insurgency before Iraq's scheduled elections in late January, Iran's efforts to destabilize Iraq have received little public attention. But a review of thousands of pages of intelligence reports by U.S. News reveals the critical role Iran has played in aiding some elements of the anti-American insurgency after Baghdad fell--and raises important questions about whether Iran will continue to try to destabilize Iraq after elections are held. The classified intelligence reports, covering the period July 2003 through early 2004, were prepared by the CIA; the Defense Intelligence Agency; the Iraq Survey Group, the 1,400-person outfit President Bush sent to Iraq to find weapons of mass destruction; the Coalition Provisional Authority; and various military commands and units in the field, including the V Corps and the Pentagon's Combined Joint Special Operations Task Force. The reports are based on information gathered from Iraqis, Iranian dissidents, and other sources inside Iraq. U.S. News also reviewed British intelligence assessments of the postwar phase in Iraq.
$500 a soldier. Many of the reports are uncorroborated and are considered "raw" intelligence of the type seldom seen by those outside the national security community. But the picture that emerges from the sheer volume of the reports, and as a result of the multiplicity of sources from which they were generated, leaves little doubt about the depth of Iran's involvement in supporting elements of the insurgency and in positioning itself to move quickly in Iraq if it believes a change in circumstances there dictates such action. "Iran," wrote an analyst with the Air Force Office of Special Investigations on Dec. 5, 2003, "poses the greatest long-term threat to U.S. efforts in Iraq." An analyst at the V Corps summarized matters this way: "Iranian intelligence agents are conducting operations in every major city with a significant Shia population. The counterintelligence threat from Iran is assessed to be high, as locally employed people, former military officers, politicians, and young men are recruited, hired, and trained by Iranian intelligence to collect [intelligence"> on coalition forces."
Even as Bremer's Coalition Provisional Authority and the U.S.-led military were pressing last year to consolidate their grip on Iraq, the intelligence reports indicate, the seeds of the insurgency were growing, in some cases with funding and direction from Iranian government factions. "Iranian intelligence will not conduct attacks on CF [coalition forces"> that can be directly linked to Iran," wrote a senior Army analyst, "but will provide lethal aid to subversive elements within Iraq . . . in the form of weapons, safe houses, or money." In an interview, David Kay, the former chief weapons inspector for the Iraq Survey Group, said he believes that factions within the Iranian government have been plotting with and funding some insurgency groups. "I think we are in an intelligence war with Iran," Kay said. "There are Iranian intelligence agents all over the country [Iraq">." Another former American official, Michael Rubin, who worked for the Pentagon and the Coalition Provisional Authority, agrees. "Iran feels it should be the predominant power in the region," Rubin said. "With the U.S. out of there, they [will"> have no real competition."
The intelligence reports reviewed by U.S. News appear to support those assessments. Examples:
Iran set up a massive intelligence network in Iraq, flooding the country with agents in the months after the U.S.-led coalition toppled Saddam Hussein's regime. Sources told American intelligence analysts that Iranian agents were tasked with finding information on U.S. military plans and identifying Iraqis who would be willing to conduct attacks on U.S. forces that would not be linked to Iran.
Iranian intelligence agents were said to have planned attacks against the U.S.-led forces and supported terrorist groups with weapons. Iranian agents smuggled weapons and ammunition across the border into Iraq and distributed them "to individuals who wanted to attack coalition forces," according to one report, citing "a source with good access." Separately, an Iraq Survey Group report said that Iranian agents "placed a bounty" of $500 for each American soldier killed by insurgents and more for destruction of tanks and heavy weaponry.
Iran trained terrorists and provided them with safe havens and passage across the border into Iraq, several of the reports say. The Iranian-supported Ansar al-Islam began carrying out bombings and other attacks against coalition forces and Iraqi citizens in the summer of 2003. One report, describing an interview with a source, said: "There were approximately 320 Ansar al-Islam terrorists being trained in Iran . . . for various attack scenarios including suicide bombings, assassinations, and general subversion against U.S. forces in Iraq." The reports linked Ansar al-Islam to al Qaeda and to Abu Musab Zarqawi, the most wanted terrorist in Iraq. "Among the more capable terrorist groups operating in Iraq," an analyst wrote in another report, "are al Qaeda, the al Zarqawi network, as well as Ansar al-Islam."
Iran has been a principal supporter of Moqtada al-Sadr, a radical Shiite cleric whose black-clad Mahdi Army fighters have clashed often with U.S.-led forces. Months before the worst of the insurgency in southern Iraq began last April, U.S. intelligence officials tracked reported movements of Iranian money and arms to forces loyal to Sadr. According to a V Corps report written in September 2003, "There has been an increase of Iranian intelligence officers entering" Baghdad, Najaf, Karbala, Basra, and Amarah. Sadr's fighters later engaged in fierce battles with coalition forces in each of those cities.
"Double game." Iran's permanent mission to the United Nations in New York did not respond to repeated requests for comment from U.S. News . In a sermon given last April, Ayatollah Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, a leading political figure in Iran, said that Americans were "a very effective target" but that Iran "does not wish to get involved in acts of adventurism." Separately, in New York last September, Iranian Foreign Minister Kamal Kharrazi denied that his country had funded or armed Sadr's Mahdi Army.
U.S. government officials, questioned about the intelligence reports reviewed by U.S. News , say the evidence of Iran's destabilization efforts in Iraq is persuasive. "We certainly do have a lot of evidence of Iranian mischief making," a senior Pentagon official said in an interview, "and attempts [at"> building subversive influence. I would never underestimate the Iranian problem. . . . Iran is a menace in a basic sense."
Looking at the overall problem in Iraq, however, the official identifies Sunni Muslim extremists as the "hard core" of the insurgency. They include former supporters of Saddam and some foreign fighters--most prominently Zarqawi, whose network has claimed responsibility for some of Iraq's bloodiest bombings and the beheading of American Nicholas Berg and other western captives. Some terrorists, the official noted pointedly, are also using Syria as an outpost and safe haven.
More than a year ago, the Defense Intelligence Agency reached similar conclusions in a secret analysis headlined "Iraq: Who Are We Fighting?" The analysis cited foreign jihadists as "potentially" the most "threatening." An analyst with the Iraq Survey Group concluded that "[a">s time passes and more and more terrorists and foreign fighters come into Iraq, the situation will become more dangerous because you will get a more experienced enemy, with more training, resources, and experience."
Iran has obvious interests in Iraq. In the 1980s, Iran and Iraq fought a brutal eight-year war that claimed more than a million casualties. Despite the hostilities, the Shiite communities of both countries have deep ties. Shiites compose the majority of the population in both Iran and Iraq, accounting for 60 percent of the latter's 25.4 million people. Iraq is home to some of Shiite Islam's most important holy sites, and thousands of Iranians have taken advantage of newly opened borders to visit them. During Saddam's three decades of repression, Iran provided support and refuge for many of Iraq's Shiite religious leaders. Patrick Clawson, a leading expert on Iraq and Iran at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, says it is not surprising that Iran is heavily involved in Iraq. "It only makes sense that the government of Iran would want to have a network of contacts with the insurgents, develop friends, develop intelligence sources, provide them information about American assets and capabilities," he said in an interview. " . . . It is in their national interest." At the same time, Clawson says, Iran is playing "a double game"--stirring up trouble in Iraq while publicly professing support for Iraqi elections.
Understanding Iran's precise motives in Iraq is no simple matter. Ahmed Hashim, a professor of strategic studies at the U.S. Naval War College, says that the Islamic regime in Tehran does not always speak with one voice. "I think Iran has its hand in a lot of what's going on [in Iraq">, but we shouldn't assume the government is unified," he says. "When you look at the Iranian system of government, if you say Iran, it could actually be the Ministry of Intelligence and Security, the [charitable"> foundations, or various agencies of the government. They act almost independently." Another Iran expert, Kenneth Pollack, who served in the Clinton White House as director of Persian Gulf affairs on the National Security Council staff, believes Iran does not want chaos in Iraq. "The Iranian leaders are terrified of chaos in Iraq," he says, "and the spillover" aspect. Iran, Pollack adds, wants a stable, "independent" government headed by Shiites.
Whatever its objectives in Iraq, Iran has a well-documented history of supporting terrorist groups. For years, the State Department has identified Iran as the world's pre-eminent state sponsor of terrorism. American officials say the regime has provided funding, safe havens, training, and weapons to several terrorist groups, including Lebanon-based Hezbollah. The commission investigating the 9/11 attacks said in its final report that al Qaeda has long-standing ties to Iran and Hezbollah. Iran favors spectacular attacks, officials say, citing its alleged role in the 1996 bombing of the Khobar Towers in Dhahran, Saudi Arabia, that claimed the lives of 19 U.S. servicemen. Six of the Hezbollah terrorists indicted in the attack "directly implicated" senior Iranian government officials "in the planning and execution of this attack," former FBI Director Louis Freeh wrote last year.
A wolf's claws. Freeh named two Iranian government agencies, the Ministry of Intelligence and Security, or MOIS, and the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps, an elite fighting unit and enforcer for the clerical regime. As the insurgency developed in Iraq, both played central roles in planning and funding some of the attacks on coalition forces, according to the intelligence reports reviewed by U.S. News. Early on, MOIS and the revolutionary guard corps were tasked with the job of creating instability in Iraq, the reports say. In some cases, Iran's agents allegedly worked with former Saddam loyalists, an odd marriage but one that shared a common goal: to drive U.S. forces out of Iraq. The reports detail how Iranian agents sought to recruit former regime loyalists and how one former Iraqi Intelligence Service officer, who had close ties to Saddam's late son, Uday, reportedly set up a front company for Iranian intelligence operations in Baghdad.
Only weeks after Saddam was ousted, in April 2003, Iran publicly signaled support for violence against the coalition. In a sermon on May 2, Ayatollah Ahmad Jannati, secretary general of Iran's powerful Council of Guardians, called on Iraqis to stage suicide attacks to drive U.S.-led forces from Iran. The Iraqi people, he said, "have no other choice but to rise up and stage martyrdom operations. . . . The Iraqi people were released from the claws of one wolf and have been caught by another wolf." Two months later, U.S. News has learned, coalition forces uncovered a document describing a fatwa , or religious edict, that had reportedly been issued in Iran for its Shiite supporters in Iraq. The fatwa urged "holy fighters" in Iraq to get close to the enemy--the U.S.-led troops. These fighters, the fatwa said, should "maintain good relations with the coalition forces" but at the same time create "a secret group that would conduct attacks against American troops." U.S. analysts could not confirm that the ruling was issued by Iranian clerics, but they believe it was credible. Wrote one analyst: "It seems that they [the Iranians"> want them [Iraqi Shiite supporters"> to be close to the coalition forces and outwardly respect them so that they can gather intelligence that will assist them in their mission."
Before long, Iran's Ministry of Intelligence and Security stepped up its intelligence operations in Iraq, many of the intelligence reports suggest. Agents set up "significant" intelligence cells in key Iraqi cities, several reports said, including Baghdad, Najaf, Karbala, Kut, Basra, and Kirkuk. MOIS agents also set up a "listening post" in a city in southeastern Iraq to monitor the activities of U.S. forces. In southern Iraq, 10 Iranian agents reportedly began operating out of two rooms at a Shiite mosque. Iran, according to the reports, also sought to place spies within Bremer's Coalition Provisional Authority, then running Iraq's affairs, and they followed and photographed coalition forces. Four Iranians, believed to be MOIS agents, were detained in late July 2003 for photographing a hydropower plant near the central city of Samarra. Power plants became a frequent target of insurgents. In one case, U.S. intelligence officials learned that a MOIS agent, a man named Muhammad Farhaadi, videotaped coalition operations in Karbala, a city south of Baghdad, then took the tape back to Iran.
During the summer and fall of 2003, U.S. analysts' reports describe how MOIS and its operatives sought to develop information from Shiites in the south and from Sunnis in the north on the activities of U.S.-led forces. In the fall of 2003, an analyst for the Air Force Office of Special Investigations wrote: "Iranian intelligence has infiltrated all areas of Iraq, posing both a tactical and strategic threat to U.S. interests."
Bribes and border crossings. MOIS also sought to cultivate former Iraqi intelligence officers who might help develop intelligence on the plans and activities of the Coalition Provisional Authority and U.S.-led forces, several reports said. "Former IIS [Iraqi Intelligence Service"> officers are highly sought-after targets by U.S. intelligence," said an October 2003 report issued by the Air Force Office of Special Investigations, "not only for their current and former knowledge of Iraqi activities but also because many IIS officers will likely have a wealth of intelligence information on Iran. Iran knows this and will strive to recruit former IIS officers before the U.S. is able to do so. The environment is ripe for double-agent operations, and loyalties can never be certain."
The intelligence reports detail precisely what Iran was after. Its "collection priorities" included finding out what weapons U.S. troops were carrying and what kind of body armor they were wearing. Iranian agents also sought information on the location of U.S. Army and intelligence bases; on the routes traveled by U.S. convoys; on the operations of the Special Forces' elite Delta Force; and on the plans of the U.S. military and intelligence inside Iraq. A military report said a source had reported that the Iranians were pressing to find out whether the Israeli intelligence agency, Mossad, was active in Iraq. According to the report, MOIS directed its agents "to collect information on the Israeli intelligence presence in northern Iraq." Iran's "primary objective in Iraq," wrote another analyst, citing a good source, "is to create instability so coalition forces will focus on controlling the unstable situation rather than concentrating on reconstruction efforts."
MOIS agents carried cash, reports said, to bribe Iraqi border police in order to obtain safe passage into Iraq. In reality, however, all the Iranians had to do was walk across the border at any number of crossing points, where they could blend in amid Iranians coming to Iraq to visit relatives, do business, and worship at Shiite shrines, according to the intelligence reports and several senior Army officers interviewed by U.S. News. "The borders were wide open," says one senior officer. "It suggests that terrorists could come over pretty easily. My God, there were busloads of Iranians crossing the border without interference." Another U.S. Army officer was so concerned that Iranian spies and Islamic jihadists were crossing into Iraq that he visited a border site in a mountainous region northeast of Baghdad last January. "I saw over 1,200 people come over [to Iraq"> in an hour, and there were no [coalition"> troops there," the officer recalls. "I did not see them armed, but then a lot of them came across in carts and some in vehicles and donkeys, and you wouldn't know. If only 1 percent of them were combatants," he adds, "you can see the problem."
Iranian agents had plenty of help waiting inside Iraq. Numerous intelligence reports say that members of a Shiite militia group in Iraq known as the Badr Corps aided Iran in moving agents, weapons, and other materiel into southern Iraq--sometimes under the cover of humanitarian organizations. The Badr Corps has served as the armed wing of one of the most popular Shiite political parties in southern Iraq, the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq, or SCIRI. The leaders of both SCIRI and the Badr Corps, which now calls itself the Badr Organization, have maintained close ties to Iran for about two decades. Iraqis associated with SCIRI and Badr opposed Saddam's regime and fled to Iran in the early 1980s, where their organizations were established. They began returning to Iraq in droves after U.S.-led troops invaded Iraq in March 2003, prompting Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld to warn the Badr Corps not to interfere in Iraq. Badr leaders say they have no hostile intentions toward U.S. forces, but their loyalties remain much in doubt. Just last month, Iraq's national intelligence chief, Mohammed al Shahwani, accused the Badr Organization of killing 10 of his agents on orders from Iranian leaders. Badr, which denied the charges, was said to have disarmed this past summer, as part of an agreement with the new Iraqi government that would allow its members to serve in the new Iraqi Civil Defense Force.
Yet Badr's historical ties to Iran, as described in U.S. and British intelligence reports, offer little in the way of reassurance. While saying that SCIRI and Badr have "made some attempts to emphasize independence from Iran," a British Defence Intelligence Staff report on "Armed Groups in Iraq," dated Nov. 21, 2003, says that the Badr Organization retains "strong links" to Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps." The IRGC, the report says, "has funded, trained, and armed" the militia group, whose membership it estimated at between 18,000 and 20,000. The report says that some Badr members were unhappy with their leader, Abul Aziz al-Hakim, who commands both SCIRI and Badr, and had returned to Iran. At the time, the report says, Badr was "well equipped" with "small arms, mortars and RPG s [rocket-propelled grenades">," T-55 series tanks and a "variety of artillery and antiair pieces." Other intelligence reports say that an Iranian government agency--probably the IRGC--had provided Badr with global positioning systems to better target U.S.-led forces.
Some of the most important information on Iran has been provided by an Iranian exile group, the Mujaheddin-e-Khalq. The MEK fled Iran after the 1979 revolution and later relocated with Saddam's support to Iraq, where it continued to advocate the overthrow of the Iranian clerical regime. U.S. forces now are guarding its 3,800 members at Camp Ashraf, the MEK's sprawling compound northeast of Baghdad. Designated a terrorist organization by the State Department, the MEK nevertheless has provided American officials with significant intelligence on Iran's nuclear weapons programs. The MEK, wrote one Army analyst, is "quite proficient at intelligence collection." Other analysts said that the MEK also had provided valuable on-the-ground intelligence to Army Special Forces after the invasion of Iraq. "The SF guys claim the [MEK"> are a valuable intel asset," wrote an Army sergeant who had met frequently with the MEK, "and are generally reliable." At the same time, an Army team wrote that it was important to be mindful that, given that its stated goal is to topple the government in Tehran, the MEK's reports "were designed to inform as well as influence American policy toward . . . the Iranian regime."
A red truck. Relying on its own agents inside Iran and other sources, the MEK has given Army personnel detailed reports on what it says have been Iran's efforts to destabilize Iraq. In its reports, some of which were reviewed by U.S. News, the MEK reported on the intelligence-collection methods of Iran's MOIS, arms shipments from Iran to Iraq, and the involvement in these operations of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps's so-called Qods Force, or "Jerusalem Force."
In December last year, MEK intelligence officers provided the Army with a detailed report and maps on what it called "a widespread network for transferring and distributing arms from Iran to Iraq" through the Ilam region in western Iran. The MEK said its sworn enemy, the Badr Organization, was involved in the network. According to the MEK's operatives, both Badr and the Iranian command staff were based in Iran at the border town of Mehran. "In order to control and manage the intelligence and terrorist activities in Iraq," a MEK intelligence officer wrote, "the Qods Force has recently moved part of its command staff from Tehran to the border city of Mehran." His report also identifed the areas in western, northwestern, and southern Iran where Qods Force commanders operated, along with the identities of more than a dozen commanders.
The MEK's reports contain detailed information on arms shipments. On Dec. 4, 2003, the MEK reported, Iranian agents moved 1,000 rocket-propelled grenades and seven boxes of TNT from western Iran to Iraqi resistance groups. A week later, Iran's Qods Force moved "a number of Mirage submachine guns" into Iraq in a "truck loaded with cement bags under which the arms were hidden," according to another report. Later that month, the MEK said, an Iraqi working for Iran drove a red fruit truck--a "cover for a consignment of arms," including RPG s, mortars, and Kalashnikov rifles--across the border into Iraq.
The dissident Iranian group also provided American intelligence officers with information on how Hezbollah was aiding Iran in gathering intelligence in Iraq. Hezbollah, a bitter enemy of Israel with close ties to Iran and Syria, collected information on American and British troops, photographed them, then sent the information to Qods Force commanders in Iran, according to MEK intelligence reports.
Intelligence officers for the MEK also said they had learned that Hezbollah had some 800 operatives in Iraq as of last January, including assassination teams. "The teams assassinate their opponents," a MEK intelligence officer reported, "and carry out sabotage operations." The MEK claimed that Hezbollah had assassinated an Iraqi man who had provided information to coalition forces.
Other sources provided similar information, including Mossad, the Israeli intelligence agency. Mossad warned U.S. intelligence officials in October 2003 that Hezbollah planned to set up a resistance movement that would cause mass casualties, according to a report prepared by the Defense Intelligence Agency's Joint Intelligence Task Force--Combating Terrorism. Iran, the report said, was calling the shots. "Should such mass casualty attacks be considered," the task force wrote, "they [Hezbollah"> must first receive approval from Iran." The Iranians "do not want the U.S. and the coalition to focus attention on Iranian support for terrorist networks or other anti-coalition activities they're involved with," said a report by an analyst for a U.S. Central Command support team in Iraq. "Iran is also trying to ensure it has a great deal of influence in Iraq, and one way of doing that is to supply weapons to anti-coalition groups."
Iranian agencies put the intelligence they gathered to practical use, planning, funding, and training attackers, according to many of the intelligence reports reviewed by U.S. News. In November of last year, the Iraq Survey Group received information that Iran had formed small groups of fighters to conduct attacks in cities across Iraq. "Iran had reportedly placed a bounty on U.S. forces of U.S. $2,000 for each helicopter shot down, $1,000 for each tank destroyed, and $500 for each U.S. military personnel killed," the Iraq Survey Group reported. Iranian agents were also suspected in the assassination of at least two prominent Iraqis. In the fall of 2003, there were two reported plots against Bremer, the Coalition Provisional Authority administrator. The Iraq Survey Group, citing a source who "has provided reliable information in the past," said a senior Iranian cleric in Tehran set up a special 100-member army, known as al Saqar, which means eagle in Arabic, to assassinate Bremer and carry out other terrorist attacks. The Eagle Army, the Iraqi Survey Group was told, had trained for 30 days at an Iranian terrorist camp. This alleged plot and others reportedly planned against Bremer came to nothing. There were many reported plots against Bremer during his one-year tenure in Baghdad, and throughout his time there he was provided with blanket security. He declined to be interviewed for this story.
Mastermind. Jihadists saw Iraq as an opportunity. In a report quoting a source who was not otherwise characterized, a U.S. Special Operations task force wrote that "the Lebanese Hizballah leadership believes that the struggle in Iraq is the new battleground in the fight against the U.S." In fact, other analysts wrote, Hezbollah and Ansar al-Islam were among the most active groups in Iraq, although al Qaeda operatives also were believed to be operating there soon after the invasion.
Ansar al-Islam is a small group of Arabs and Iraqi Kurds that is believed to have figured in some of the most violent attacks in Iraq. American and British intelligence, the reports show, concluded that Ansar al-Islam was working closely with Iran, and also al Qaeda, in its terrorist attacks against coalition forces. Military intelligence reports suggested that the group was believed to be linked to two horrific bombings in Baghdad last year--the attack on the Jordanian Embassy on August 7, in which 17 people were killed, and the August 19 bombing that devastated the United Nations headquarters in Baghdad. That attack killed 22 people, including U.N. envoy Sergio Vieira de Mello. Intelligence reporting indicated that the mastermind of the U.N. attack was Zarqawi, the terrorist who has continued to bedevil coalition forces, and that al Qaeda operatives also played a role. A "reliable source with good access" said that Zarqawi had coordinated his plans for attacks in Iraq with Ansar al-Islam's top leader, Abu Abdullah al-Shafii. The reports did not link Iran directly to either the U.N. attack or the Jordanian bombing. But one British defense report noted pointedly: "Some elements [of Ansar al-Islam"> remain in Iran. Intelligence indicates that elements" of Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps "are providing safe haven and basic training to Iran-based AI [Ansar al-Islam"> cadres."
Funneling money. A separate report from the British Secret Intelligence Service, quoting a source who "has proved fairly reliable," said that Iranian government agencies were also secretly helping Ansar al-Islam members cross into Iraq from Iran, as part of a plan to mount sniper attacks against coalition forces. There were also multiple American intelligence reports identifying Iran as a chief supporter of Ansar al-Islam. U.S. intelligence received information that an Iranian was aiding Ansar al-Islam "on how to build and set up" improvised explosive devices, known as IED s. An analyst for the U.S. Central Command offered this assessment: "AI [Ansar al-Islam"> is actively attempting to improve IED effectiveness and sophistication."
As might be expected, given the volume of the intelligence reports reviewed by U.S. News , some of the information was contradictory. In some cases, Hezbollah, for instance, was said to be planning direct attacks against coalition forces. In others, it was said to be working only behind the scenes in fomenting violence in Iraq.
Perhaps Iran's most significant involvement in Iraq has been its support for Moqtada al-Sadr, the radical, anti-U.S. cleric. His Mahdi Army militia engaged in a series of vicious battles with coalition forces in the holy southern Shiite cities of Najaf and Karbala, and in the teeming Baghdad slum known as Sadr City, between April and October this year. Like most of its operations in Iraq, the intelligence reports indicate that the Iranian regime has tried to mask its support of Sadr. He visited Tehran in June 2003 for a ceremony marking the death of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, the spiritual leader of the 1979 revolution, but it is not known whether he received any commitment from Iran at that time. U.S. intelligence reports say that Iran used Hezbollah to train and provide funds to Sadr's Mahdi Army and may also have used front companies to funnel money to him. For a time, the reports suggest, Sadr appeared to be getting funds from a senior Shiite religious leader living in Iran, the Grand Ayatollah Kazem al-Haeri, who advocates an Islamic state in Iraq. But by mid-October 2003, according to a special operations task force, Haeri withdrew his "financial support" from Sadr. The ayatollah later publicly cut his ties with Sadr.
There was no such break with Hezbollah. The first sign that the terrorist group planned to support Sadr is reflected in a July 29, 2003, U.S. intelligence report. Citing Israeli military intelligence, the report says Hezbollah "military activists" were attempting to establish contacts with Sadr and his Mahdi Army. The next month they did. By late August, according to a report prepared by a U.S. military analyst, Hezbollah had established "a team of30 to 40 operatives" in Najaf "in support of Moqtada Sadr's Shia paramiltary group." The report, based on a source "with direct access to the reported information," said that Hezbollah was recruiting and training members of Sadr's militia. A later report, citing "multiple sources," said that Hezbollah was "buying rocket-propelled grenades . . . antitank missiles" and other weapons for Sadr's militia.
Intelligence analysts also tied Sadr to Hassan Nasrallah, the secretary general of Hezbollah. "Reporting also confirms the relationship between . . . Sadr and Hassan Nasrallah," an Army report said. The report cited unconfirmed information indicating that a top adviser to Nasrallah, who is based in Lebanon, had delivered funds to Sadr in Najaf.
Other reporting indicated that the Mahdi Army may have received support from former Saddam supporters and other anticoalition groups. Intelligence analysts were aware, as early as the fall of 2003, that Sadr could become a serious problem. At that time, there had been no confirmed attacks on coalition forces, only Sadr's tough rhetoric, in which he denounced the United States and called the Iraqi Governing Council illegal. But, as a British defense intelligence report said, "stockpiling of heavier weapons, along with public anti-CF [Coalition Force"> rhetoric, could indicate a willingness to take more direct action against CF."
"The honeymoon is over." Direct action was precisely what Sadr took, after Bremer ordered his Baghdad newspaper shut down, in March this year, accusing it of "inciting violence" against U.S.-led forces. Days later, after American soldiers arrested a Sadr aide, fierce fighting erupted between U.S. troops and Sadr's forces. In August, Sadr's Mahdi Army surrendered the Imam Ali Shrine in Najaf, and last month he reached a cease-fire with the United States and Iraq's interim government. Sadr's fighters began turning in their weapons, as part of an agreement to disband, and Sadr signaled his intention to get involved in the political process. He remains influential with many Shiites, and American officials know that, if the Iraqi venture is to succeed, they must do everything they can to keep the majority Shiites happy. "Beware if we lose the goodwill of the Shi'ites. The honeymoon is over," an Army captain wrote in October 2003, months before the battles with Sadr's forces began. "Arresting Sadr, the son of a martyr, will only fuel Shiite extremists' animosity, and strengthen their recruiting efforts."
Managing the Sadr situation, some government and intelligence officials say, is a microcosm of the far more difficult challenges America faces in responding to Iran's activities in Iraq. Iran clearly has the potential to stir up far more trouble than it has, particularly in the largely Shiite southern half of Iraq. But so far, as it continues its elaborate dance with the West over its ambitious nuclear program, the Islamic regime has yet to turn the heat up full blast in Iraq, evidently secure in the knowledge that it can do so when and if it sees the need to. "I would not put it past them to carry out spectacular attacks," says David Kay, the former chief U.S. weapons inspector in Iraq, "to demonstrate the cost of a hostile policy. That is the policy issue--can we learn to live with Iranian nuclear capacity?"