United Press International
By Roland Flamini
Chief International Correspondent
Washington, DC, Aug. 16 (UPI) -- A senior Iraqi government official played videotapes for reporters showing seized boxes of weapons intended for Moqtada Sadr's Mahdi Army. Wael Abdel Latif, minister for the provinces in Iraq's interim administration, said the weapons came from Iran.
Such claims -- as those made Sunday -- of Iranian involvement in the fighting in Najaf have begun to surface in statements from by members of Prime Minister Iyad Allawi's government. Also Sunday, Mohammed Kazem, an Iraqi correspondent for Iranian television was arrested at gunpoint by police right in the middle of a live broadcast to Tehran, according to press reports from the Shiite holy city.
It is true that Kazem's detention came after journalists had been given two hours to leave Najaf by the Iraqi interior minister or risk being arrested. But on Monday, Iraqi police in Baghdad also detained the chief of the official Iranian news agency IRNA, Mustafa Darban, and two members of his staff.
Sadr is known for his strong ties to Iran, which he visits frequently. Well-informed Western diplomats said Monday that the fiery cleric had visited Iran on two separate occasions shortly before his Mahdi Army began its most recent offensive. One theory is that his denunciation of the United States as the major enemy was delivered while across the border.
Iran-based Ayatollah Kazem Hossein Haeri, who is Sadr's mentor, warned Monday that it was "haram (forbidden) for the Iraqi police and armed forces to assault Iraqi citizens, and also to point a gun in the face of Muslims." His warning came at the start of what the Iraqi government said would be a "major offensive" to clear Sadr's Mahdi Army out of Najaf.
Haeri said the Iraqi government should not "fire at (Iraqi) people," and should beg forgiveness of its citizens.
Haeri, whose authority is highly respected by many Iraqi Shiites, had been a student of the leading Iraqi Shiite cleric Mohammed Sadeq al-Sadr. When the older Sadr was assassinated by Saddam Hussein's regime in 1999, Haeri became the mentor of his son, Moqtada.
Meanwhile, Iranian Foreign Minister Kamal Kharrazi has urged the United Nations to play a larger role in the security of Iraq and to help in ending the violence in Najaf. The United Nations is supposed to take the lead in organizing free elections in Iraq and in helping to bring economic and political stability. But the world body is trying to organize better security for itself before committing staff to Iraq.
Fighting was renewed in Najaf after cease-fire negotiations failed on Friday. Diplomatic sources say Iran has kept Sadr supplied with weapons, and speculate that there may be Iranians among the fighters.
In taking a hand in Najaf, according to observers, Tehran may be sending a message to the Bush administration to ease its pressure on Iran to halt its nuclear program or expect more mischief in Iraq. The Iranians recently resumed their nuclear program in defiance of the International Atomic Energy Agency's demands to halt its development.
Another possible reason for Tehran to support Sadr's renewed action after two quiet months is that the cleric could be taking advantage of the absence of Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani to build up his strength among Iraqi Shiites who make up 60 percent of the population. Most Iraqi Shiites look to the Najaf-based grand ayatollah as their main spiritual leader, and renewed fighting by the Mahdi Army coincided with his departure for London, reportedly for heart surgery.
"It's probably a case of cat-away-mice-can-play situation, and the Iranians don't want to be left out," one Washington expert said Monday.
But the fighting is also an opportunity to test the will of the Iraqi interim government and the strength of its new armed forces and police. Sadar, in short, has made Najaf a test of Allawi's ability to control his trouble-prone country.