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Growing Iranian influence in Iraq troubles U.S.

BASRA, Iraq—Several times a week, Iranian-trained Shiite militia soldiers visit Allah Kamil to buy weapons to fight Iraq's past regime—and perhaps its future one.

With bricks of Iraqi dinars, they buy dozens of Kalashnikov rifles, rocket-propelled grenades and anti-tank bazookas. Then they tell Kamil to find more.

"They claim Saddam is still alive and the Baathists are still around," said Kamil, a vegetable seller turned arms dealer "They want to first fight the Baathists, then use the weapons against the Americans and British soldiers if they stay in Iraq."

Shiite-run Iran's influence is growing in southern Iraq, as rival Shiite Muslim clerics move to fill the power vacuum created by the fall of Saddam Hussein's Baathist regime. And senior U.S. officials express concerns that meddling by Tehran in Iraq's affairs could undermine U.S. goals to create a secular, western-leaning democracy.

In recent weeks, soldiers of the Badr Brigade, the militia of the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq, a Shiite faction based in Iran, have slipped across Iraq's porous border from Iran. Their goal, according to U.S. intelligence officials, is to stir up pro-Iranian sentiments among Iraq's Shiites, who make up 60 percent of the population.

Meanwhile, some prominent Iraqi Shiite clerics are calling for an Islamic state modeled after Iran, where Shiite clerics serve as both religious and political leaders.

"The people want the men of religion to lead them," said Sheik Adnan al Selawi, the Basra representative of Moqtada al Sadr, one of several Shiite clerics competing for power in Iraq. "They are asking us to make Islamic laws as the only law of the country."

As he spoke at Sadr's office in Basra, bearded men in religious robes nodded in agreement. In the hallway hung a wall-size banner of a huge fist against a Shiite flag.

Pro-Iranian clerics such as Sadr are gaining support, while encouraging a Shiite revival after being stifled under Saddam's Sunni Muslim-dominated government.

"The way they run things in Iran establishes justice," said Ali Mehdi al Mousawi, 30, an English teacher who attended a recent Sadr rally. "But if we get a government supported or chosen by the USA, it will be corrupt."

A major worry of the United States is that the new Iraq could align itself with Tehran. Such an alliance could destabilize the Middle East, especially Saudi Arabia, a key U.S. ally, which has its own unruly Shiite minority that lives in its oil-rich areas.

Iran has long been a champion of Iraqi Shiites. It's the main backer of the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq, Iraq's largest opposition group.

The group's leader, Ayatollah Mohammed Baqr al Hakim, is based in Tehran.

Hakim's Badr Brigade, however, entered Iraq weeks ago.

Kamil, the arms dealer, said he began selling weapons to the Badr Brigade about a month ago. Three to four times a week, he said, three bearded Iraqi men in civilian clothes, who speak Farsi with each other, meet him near the statue of an Iraqi poet.

The men, Kamil said, are open about their ambitions. "They want to rule the country," he said. "They want Iran and Iraq to become one country ruled by Islamic law."

It's too early to tell what role Iran will play in the new Iraq. In a recent intelligence briefing, U.S. officials described "extensive Iranian influence via Shia clerics," but said the Badr Brigade did not worry them. Marine Lt. Gen. James Conway, the military commander in southern Iraq, said he is watching to make sure Iran's influence does not become "subversive" and "take Iraq apart at the seams."

Selawi and other pro-Iranian Shiite clerics insist they will not be proxies of Tehran. And they say that Hakim and Iraqi exiles returning from Iran don't have the moral authority to lead Iraq because they fought Saddam from outside the country.

"We are the ones who sacrificed and gave our blood," said Sheik Allah al Obaidi, a Sadr disciple and a member of the Hawza, an influential council of clerics based in the Iraqi Shiite holy city of Najaf. "We deserve more than any others to rule here in Basra."

Yet Hakim and the Iraqi clerics share something in common. They see Americans as infidels whose presence will corrupt the Islam at the core of the nation's soul.

"We don't want them here occupying our country," Selawi said.

Selawi said he is grateful for Iran's help and, in an indication that he would be willing take more direction from Iran, he said that he would support a recent fatwa—a religious edict—issued by an influential Iraqi cleric based in the Iranian city of Qum.

The fatwa brands the United States "The Great Satan" and urges Shiite clerics in Iraq to work against the American occupying forces and kill all Baathists.

Other influential Shiite clerics, including Iraq's top Shiite leader, are against a government fashioned after Iran. The Grand Ayatollah Ali al Sistani believes that religion and politics should be separated, and appears to support a democratic system.

"We are trying to run things by ourselves without the help of Iran," said Said Imad Batat, Sistani's chief representative in Basra. Yet he added that he's "100 percent" in favor of Iraq being governed by Islamic sharia laws, though not as strict as Iran's.

Batat described Hakim's Badr Brigade soldiers as "sinners" because it is un-Islamic to buy or sell weapons for a violent cause. But he worries that Iraqis might sympathize with them because of the "foreign occupation on Muslim soil".

Kamil, the arms dealer, is not bothered by such concerns.

"I'm selling them a mortar today," he said with a smile.

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(Knight Ridder correspondent Dion Nissenbaum contributed to this report.)

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(c) 2003, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): SHIITES

Iraq

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