WASHINGTON—When rival Shiite Muslim factions battled in Iraqi cities this week in a worrisome new turn for the country's stability, neighboring Iran had little to lose: It supports both factions.
Iran has shrewdly pursued a strategy of "portfolio diversification" in Iraq. It backs a wide range of actors—even competing ones _with support, money and weapons to ensure that it has a say in Iraq's future, Western officials and analysts said.
"They are like lobbyists. They're spreading the money around, so whoever wins owes them," said Juan Cole, a University of Michigan professor and expert on Shiite Islam who's criticized U.S. policy in Iraq.
Iran's maneuverings in Iraq have taken on new urgency amid last-minute wrangling over a draft constitution and the Bush administration's charges that Tehran is fueling the anti-American insurgency with cross-border weapons shipments.
Those charges remain unproved, U.S. officials conceded, and are disputed by outside experts. They question why Iran's Shiite clerics would aid insurgents from the rival Sunni branch of Islam who are seeking to regain the power in Iraq they'd wielded under Sunni dictator Saddam Hussein.
But Iran has spread its largesse far and wide, the officials and analysts said, in pursuing three main goals in Iraq: promoting Shiite political dominance, keeping the United States off-balance and avoiding all-out sectarian civil war on its western border.
So far, it's achieved all three.
"I think the Iranians feel that they are basically winning in Iraq. They feel things are basically going their way," said Kenneth Katzman, a Middle East specialist at the Congressional Research Service, part of the Library of Congress.
Iran has maintained ties to secular Shiite leaders such as Iraqi Deputy Prime Minister Ahmad Chalabi, the former head of the exile group Iraqi National Congress, and to religious groups such as the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq.
It's also reached out gingerly to firebrand nationalist cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, according to the analysts and a senior U.S. official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because the issue of Iran's involvement in Iraq is being debated within the American government and involves classified data.
Al-Sadr's supporters battled with forces from SCIRI's military wing, the Badr Organization, Wednesday in the holy city of Najaf and other cities. The fight was part of an apparent turf war between the Shiite militias.
"Iran has built ties with an array of diverse and at times competing political forces—Shiite Islamist parties, of course, but also Kurdish parties and violent groups," according to a March report by the nonprofit International Crisis Group.
"In so doing, Tehran can maintain a degree of influence regardless of political developments and help steer those developments in less hostile directions," the report said.
It quoted European diplomats as saying Iran has provided al-Sadr, whose forces led an April 2004 rebellion against U.S. troops, with money and arms. But Iran remains wary of the unpredictable cleric, it said.
Earlier this month, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld went further, accusing Iran of allowing weapons to be smuggled across its border into Iraq for use against American troops.
"It is true that weapons clearly, unambiguously from Iran have been found in Iraq," Rumsfeld said at the time.
His remarks followed the seizure of a cache of sophisticated explosive devices in northeastern Iraq near the Iranian border. The devices use "shaped charges," which channel the power of an explosion and are used to destroy tanks and other armored vehicles.
American military forces report seeing a sharp rise in attacks using the more sophisticated weapons in the last few months.
While the shipment clearly came via Iran, who sent it and where it was headed remain in doubt, the senior U.S. official said.
"There's no quick jumping to conclusions that this stuff is Iranian, and even if it is Iranian, that (it) suggests complicity up and down the Iranian government," the official said. "People are looking at this in a vigorous way."
Wayne White, a former Middle East intelligence analyst at the State Department, said, "I cannot explain at all" the shipment. "If you were gun-running to your own people, you would never use that (northern) route," he said, referring to the fact that Iran's Shiite brethren are strongest in southern Iraq.
Cole, the University of Michigan professor, said the idea that Iran would aid Iraq's Sunni insurgents was "completely implausible."
One possibility is that the weapons were smuggled by the Lebanese militant group Hezbollah, which is a client of Iran, helped al-Qaida build the shaped-charge bomb that damaged the destroyer USS Cole and has allied itself with Sunni groups occasionally to attack U.S. targets, analysts said.
Or, they said, with power in Iran spread among competing institutions, it could be a freelance operation.
(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.