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    Middle East
     Mar 4, 2006
Sectarian chaos: Iran's dilemma
By Iason Athanasiadis

SOLEIMANIYEH, northern Iraq - For the traveler crossing from Iran into semi-autonomous Iraqi Kurdistan at the Manzuria crossing, there is little to show that he is entering the most dangerous place on Earth and a country that may be slipping into civil war. The one-way traffic from Iraq into Iran comes in the form of a stream of mostly Turkish and German trucks carrying goods.

While passages into Iraq are empty these days, Manzuria has a particularly abandoned feeling. Shi'ite pilgrims intending to visit



Iranian or Iraqi shrines prefer to enter further to the south, at the Mehran border crossing, while Kurds opt for the Marivan crossing further to the north. In the echoing Iranian arrival hall, occasional man-and-wife pairs skitter across. No one passes through on the other way.

The Iraqi government gunmen hanging around the border area may look menacing in their militia uniforms, but they are securing an area that is on the northern edge of the strife-torn chaos that is central Iraq.

Iraqi immigration officials unaccustomed to seeing Westerners passing through this remote Iranian crossing regard the foreigner with disbelief. But as a neighbor with a stake in Iraq's future, Iran is increasingly involved in Baghdad's affairs, testament to which is the gleaming new terminal that straddles the border.

Meanwhile in Kuwait, Iranian President Mahmud Ahmadinejad was blasting US involvement in Iraq and calling for the withdrawal of American troops. Radical as his statement sounds to Western ears, its delivery by a Shi'ite political leader visiting a staunchly Sunni country marked as diplomatic an approach to the Iraqi morass as could be charted in these tense times. For the Islamic Republic of Iran, defender of Shi'ite rights, the recent bombing of Samarra's Golden Dome mosque has set it on a dangerous collision course with its Sunni Arab neighbors.

After last week's attack on the shrine in Samarra and the ensuing Shi'ite reprisals, Sunni clerics tried to rally their religious constituencies inside Iraq and in the wider Arab world to ever more aggressive stands. Members of the Association of Muslim Scholars, a hardline Sunni group, have cast the violence as part of a broader struggle between Sunnis and Shi'ites across the region. This was a direct challenge to Iran and Saudi Arabia, the self-appointed guardians of Shi'ite and Sunni Islam, respectively.

In Iran, a new website called Holy Samarra; Samarra Tragedy, A New Plot to Divide Muslim People popped up on the Internet a few days after the bombing. Set up by a group of religious students at the Hawzah (religious seminary) of Qom - Iran's clerical capital - it brought together a group of articles and postings about the bombing whose main thrust is that "the unholy alliance of the United States, the Zionist regime, and the terrorists operating in Iraq planned the bombing of the holy shrines in order to justify the continued presence of occupying forces in the country".

The apparently paradoxical accusation that Washington was behind the bombing - even as US President George W Bush frantically worked the phones, urging Iraqi political leaders to exercise restraint - was echoed across the Iranian political establishment. Ahmadinejad was quoted by the official IRNA news agency, in a speech addressed to the Iraqi people, telling them that they are "at the beginning of the road to freedom, and you should know that all your problems originate from the occupiers. The occupiers ... should be held responsible for the insecurities in that country."

Iran's Supreme Leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, accused Washington of "trying to instigate a sectarian and religious war in Iraq, and the cataclysmic event in Samarra is a case in point", according to state television. On Friday, prayer leader Ayatollah Mohammad Kashani fulminated that "it is no secret that behind it [the Samarra bombing] is the Zionist Israel and the US".

He blamed "Mossad and the CIA" (the US Central Intelligence Agency) and called the "Earth's and the heavens' curses upon these two dirty and wicked organizations", which "have plans against the Islamic ummah" (community).

On newsstands across the Iranian capital, newspapers decried the terrorist attack and announced the declaration of a week of official mourning. On February 24, mosques and religious committees held a well-attended rally in central Tehran's Revolution Square. Thousands of people reportedly turned out on the Muslim holiday to protest the latest in a series of Shi'ite mosque bombings.

Iran's political elite are being forced by events in their neighboring country to walk a treacherous political tightrope between fulfilling the Islamic Republic's self-appointed role of defending Shi'ite communities around the world, and not irritating Tehran's predominantly Sunni Persian Gulf neighbors. But following a consistent record of political meddling inside Iraq, it was inevitable that conspiratorially minded Sunni Iraqis would point the finger of blame over the bombing of the Shi'ite shrine at Tehran.

"It is a plot by the Iranians to discredit us and create sectarian war so they can take control of our country," one resident of Samarra was reported as saying. "This [Iraqi] government are their agents in our midst. Look how they do not stop the retaliatory attacks."

As reprisal attacks spread across Iraq, leading to the death of an estimated 500 people so far, suspicion hangs heavy about the real perpetrators of the Samarra bombing. Iraqis interviewed for this article wondered aloud why the Samarra mosque - reportedly more of a historical tourist attraction than a specifically Shi'ite shrine - was chosen. And they pointed out that if the Sunni insurgents had wanted to blow up that mosque, they would have done it when they were in control of the city for a period of several months last year.

"For several months, Samarra was literally in the hands of the mujahideen," said Isam al-Khafaji, a former member of the Iraqi reconstruction council and current adjunct scholar at Washington's Middle East Institute. "If they had such a plan, they would have committed it then. Not only were there no victims but the trademark of al-Qaeda - butchering the guards - is absent."

The real perpetrators of the Samarra blast may never be found, but the resultant finger-pointing has shown all sides in the developing Iraqi imbroglio anxious to spin the maximum political capital out of the tragedy. The deputy governor of Saladin province, where Samarra is situated, announced that the attackers wore Iraqi Interior Ministry uniforms, indicating that they took their orders from a controversial Shi'ite political appointee who belonged to the formerly Tehran-based Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq.

The minister of the interior was arrested by the US occupying authorities in December, after Washington accused him of furthering Iranian designs inside Iraq by running secret torture chambers in collusion with Iran's Intelligence Ministry.

The secretary general of the Iraqi Islamic Party, Tareq al-Hashemi, told the Saudi-funded Al-Arabiyya satellite channel that followers of Shi'ite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr are carrying out revenge attacks on Sunni mosques and pointed the finger of blame at "their foreign supporters", in an unmistakable dig at Iran.

Were Iranian elements to blame for the bombing of the Samarra mosque, they would have been working against their country's best interests in Iraq. Tehran has made sure to assert itself through promoting a home-grown Shi'ite political class that went on to sweep both Iraqi elections since 2003. Ibrahim al-Jaafari spent nine years in Tehran before leaving for London and eventually returning to Iraq after the US-led invasion. His reappointment as Iraqi prime minister preceded the bombing of the Samarra mosque by a few days, which was interpreted by some analysts as a protest.

Before arriving in Kuwait, Ahmadinejad said on Wednesday that the toppling of Saddam Hussein turned Iraq into a "strong bastion in defense of Iran's Islamic revolution". An Iraqi descent into civil war would be against Iranian interests at a time when Tehran exercises an unprecedented amount of influence over Baghdad. US officials are increasingly desperate to boost Sunni influence in the Iraqi political game even as Tehran's Shi'ite supporters chart a pro-Iranian foreign policy.

"Blaming outsiders has been for decades a typical escapist way of not addressing our maladies that are of our own making," said Khaji. "That explains how and why 'authenticist' ideologies, nationalist and Islamist alike, have risen and found fertile soil in our region. Just like soap operas, they give you the comfortable feeling that the evil lies outside us, the clean and pure people."

Iason Athanasiadis is an Iran-based correspondent.

(Copyright 2006 Asia Times Online Ltd. All rights reserved. Please contact us for information on sales, syndication and republishing .)


Payback time in Iraq (Feb 25, '06)

Shrine attack deals blow to anti-US unity (Feb 24, '06)

Iraq goes courting in Iran (Jul 19, '05)

 
 



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