TEHRAN, Iran—The Iraqi people will vigorously and perhaps violently resist any American attempt to impose a government on them, an Iranian-backed Iraqi opposition group warned in an interview with Knight Ridder Newspapers.
"If the Americans do this, they will discover this is a mistake," Ayatollah Mohammed Baqir al-Hakim, a Shiite Muslim cleric who heads the Iran-backed Supreme Council of Islamic Revolution in Iraq, said at his headquarters here. "We don't accept any foreign government interference, whether from the outside or the inside."
The threat came as members of Iraq's main ethnic groups are positioning themselves to fill the power vacuum expected after a possible U.S.-led ouster of Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein and it underscored the difficulties the United States could encounter in a post-war Iraq as it attempts to establish a stable government.
As the nation's absolute ruler for 24 years, Saddam has used Iraq's military might to subdue Shiites in southern Iraq, who make up two-thirds of the nation's population, and Kurds in northern Iraq.
While leading a secular government, Saddam is one of the nation's minority Sunni Muslims, who recognize a different successor to the Prophet Mohammed than the one revered by Shiite Muslims.
U.S. officials have expressed concern that should Saddam be ousted, the Shiites could take control—even through democratic elections—and become uncomfortably close to Iran's Islamic Republic, dubbed by President George W. Bush as the third leg of the "axis of evil" with North Korea and Iraq. Iranians are predominantly Shiite Muslims.
"We'll have to wait and see the results" of U.S. actions to see whether armed resistance is called for, added the 63-year-old Hakim, who leads an estimated 10,000 armed guerilla fighters trained by Islamic Republic's Revolutionary Guard.
Published reports Wednesday indicated that as many as 5,000 of Hakim's troops have recently crossed the Iranian border into northern Iraq, ostensibly to counter an Iranian faction based in Iraq that the Tehran government fears could strike Iran during a U.S. war against Saddam.
Hakim's troops, known as the Badr Brigade, reportedly have gathered in a wasteland 15 miles from the Iranian border to intercept the People's Mujahedeen Organization, which launched deadly attacks from Iraq against Iran during the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq war. The United States identifies the organization as a terrorist group.
A spokesperson in Hakim's organization on Wednesday night denied that armed supreme Council troops are crossing into mountainous northern Iraq, a region that is under Kurdish, not Baghdad's control. While there are Shiite troops in the region—he refused to disclose how many—they have been there for eight or nine years, said Mohammed al-Haadi.
Most of the Badr Brigade is believed to be in the southern Iranian province of Khuzestan, awaiting Iranian permission to cross into Iraq.
In the interview, Hakim, who wears the black turban of Shiite clerics deemed descended from the Prophet Mohammed, said he would like to see the Badr Brigade serve as a kind of police force to keep Iraq secure in a post-Hussein era.
Under no circumstance will his troops help U.S. forces if they enter Iraqi soil, he said. His cool attitude toward U.S. plans to depose Hussein stems from the belief shared by many exiled Iraqi Shiites that the previous Bush administration permitted the Iraqi leader to crush their uprising against him in the aftermath of the 1991 Gulf War.
Instead of waging war against Hussein, the United States and other countries should provide Iraqi guerrilla fighters with arms, Hakim and other Shiite leaders argue. Nevertheless Shiite opposition groups have taken part in U.S.-sponsored Iraqi opposition talks and abandoned any calls for establishing an Islamic government akin to Iran's.
Here, they have been shielded and nurtured by conservative clerics for most of Saddam's reign. That may explain why Hakim has the feeling of being brushed aside by the Bush administration. Angered by reports this week of a plan to install a transitional U.S. military government, Hakim complained that American envoys had failed to heed his warnings about such an arrangement.
"Now they are speaking about this again," he said. "It will bring many dangers. We don't think there is any reason for them to stay in Iraq."
Hakim will host a conference of Shiite opposition groups next week in Tehran to discuss the role Shiites should play in any future Iraqi government.
(c) 2003, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.