6 September 2004
Six months ago, Abu Sajjad was rolling in cash. His cloth shop is right in front of the Imam Ali shrine, a great location to attract pilgrims visiting this holiest of Shiite sanctuaries. The faithful who flocked into Najaf from Iran, Afghanistan and Pakistan bought hundreds of yards of fabric to take home as souvenirs. Now Abu Sajjad looks at his storefront, riddled with bullets and shrapnel, and shakes his head. "Why did this happen?" he asks. The area surrounding the shrine is a burned-out shell. Entire buildings look like they've been sliced in half. Broken telephone poles lean awkwardly across narrow streets, and tangled electrical wires droop down like old tinsel. Mosaics on the outer walls of the gold-domed shrine have been stripped away by shrapnel and stained with black soot. And still the young toughs loyal to rebel cleric Moqtada al-Sadr are nearby, manning a barricade behind a shot-up ambulance.
"We prayed for God to come and strike down these gangsters," says Abu Sajjad. But neither the U.S. Marines nor troops of the U.S.-approved Iraqi government finished the job. And many Iraqis are asking: Why? How is it that al-Sadr could lead two insurrections in five months and still be alive, much less negotiating a new truce through Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani? Who is backing the round-faced young mullah? Who is protecting him? The most common answer--at once the simplest and the most complicated--is "Iran."
"Everyone is telling us that Iran is everywhere," says a senior Western diplomat in Baghdad. "It has become an obsession with Iraqis." And with Washington, too. U.S. intelligence and defense officials tell NEWSWEEK they have ample information pointing to Iranian support for al-Sadr. "He's clearly their guy," says one. But hedging their bets, "the Iranians are putting their chips down on red and black, even and odds," says another official in Washington. "At some point a winner will emerge on the political scene, and they just want to be sure they have leverage."
Iran and Iraq, in fact, have a ferocious, intimate enmity that dates back thousands of years. Especially in the holy precincts of the Shiite shrines, Persian and Arab populations have warred and mingled, embraced and intrigued against each other for generations, creating webs of relationships that challenge American comprehension. To give one striking example, Moqtada al-Sadr, the symbol of resistance and suspected collaborator with Iran, is of Arab blood. Ayatollah Sistani, who's seen by the Americans as their great white-bearded hope, and whose return to Najaf restored calm after three weeks of fighting, is of Iranian origin.
The Iranian leadership publicly cheers on the Iraqi rebels, even as it sometimes supports peacemaking efforts. At Friday prayers in Teheran last week, Ayatollah Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani likened the resistance in Najaf to the Russians' stand against the Nazis at Stalingrad. Such statements infuriate Washington's allies in Iraq, who see Iran as their natural strategic rival. "Iran is intervening to slaughter democracy in Iraq," Defense Minister Hazim Shaalan said recently. "It controls border points and sends spies and saboteurs to Iraq and infiltrated the new Iraqi government, including my ministry."
Some U.S. officials argue that Iran was always a bigger threat than Iraq. Former terrorism adviser Richard Clarke notes that Iran "funded and directed" Hizbullah organizations that blew up 242 American Marines in Beirut in 1983, and 19 U.S. military personnel at the Khobar Towers in Saudi Arabia in 1996. "Al Qaeda regularly used Iranian territory for transit and sanctuary prior to September 11," as Clarke wrote and the 9/11 Commission confirmed, and many of Al Qaeda's top leaders "moved across the border into Iran after U.S. forces finally invaded Afghanistan." Iran's nuclear program, meanwhile, continues on-again-off-again progress toward development of atomic weapons.
Faced with such challenges, Washington appears unable to decide whether confrontation or accommodation is the best response. Clarke says the Clinton administration looked at the possibility of all-out war against Iran after Khobar, but finally decided against it and sought ways to use covert action or limited military strikes instead. The Bush administration may have reached the same conclusion. Yet the presence of U.S. forces on the ground in Iraq has made them vulnerable to an Iranian-backed guerrilla war of attrition in a way they never were before.
The situation grows more convoluted every day. Even without Iranian meddling, the ill-prepared U.S. occupation has helped radicalize many young Shiites and push them toward leaders like al-Sadr. "Iraqi Shiites wouldn't naturally gravitate toward Iran," says Seyed Abbas al Modarrisi, a leading cleric in Karbala who spent nearly two decades exiled in Iran. "We're Arabs. They are Persians. And there are cultural differences. But many Shiites have lost faith in the Americans."
The fact that Iran's own government is badly divided might be some consolation to Washington, but it's also a source of confusion. Who can the Bush administration or Allawi's government talk to? Moderate reformist President Mohammed Khatami is almost completely marginalized. Rafsanjani and Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the country's two main power brokers, don't always see eye to eye, while rich religious foundations and factions of the Iranian security services often have their own agendas. Some of the unrest in Iraq is traced to a special unit of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards known as the Quds Brigade. Its supposed leaders, Mohammed Agha Mohammadi and Mohammad Reza Naghdi, are both of Iraqi origin and could be looking to set up an independent power base.
The one point of agreement is that Iraq is of vital strategic interest to Teheran, and nobody there wants a massive U.S. troop presence to remain so close at hand. "Iran is defending itself in Iraq," says Modarrisi. "If America had swallowed up Iraq in one easy bite, where would they turn next? Tehran. I wouldn't be surprised by anything Iran does in this country." None of the rest of us should be surprised either.