Iraqi Shiite Cleric Pledges to Defend Iran

Iraqi cleric Moqtada Sadr, left, speaks with reporters in Tehran after meeting with Ali Larijani, secretary of Iran's Supreme National Security Council.
Iraqi cleric Moqtada Sadr, left, speaks with reporters in Tehran after meeting with Ali Larijani, secretary of Iran's Supreme National Security Council. (Associated Press)
By Ellen Knickmeyer and Omar Fekeiki
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, January 24, 2006

BAGHDAD, Jan. 23 -- An Iraqi Muslim cleric who leads a major Shiite militia pledged to come to the defense of neighboring Iran if it were attacked, aides to the cleric, Moqtada Sadr, said Monday.

The commitment, made Sunday in Tehran during a visit by Sadr, came in response to a senior Iranian official's query about what the cleric would do in the event of an attack on Iran. It marked the first open indication that Iraq's Shiite neighbor is preparing for a military response if attacked in a showdown with the West over its nuclear program.

The pledge was also one of the strongest signs yet that Iraq could become a battleground in any Western conflict with Iran, raising the specter of Iraqi Shiite militias -- or perhaps even the U.S.-trained Shiite-dominated military -- taking on American troops here in sympathy with Iran.

Sadr is a top leader of the Shiite coalition that leads Iraq and dominates its security forces. His pledge might be seen as an indicator of how the Iraqi government may respond to a potential attack on its neighbor.

"If there was an attack on Iran, even a limited military strike, this would provoke anger through the entire Muslim world. It would certainly jeopardize the already fragile position of the United States in Iraq," said Joseph Cirincione, an Iraq and nuclear weapons expert with the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington.

"Whether that would mean an uprising, direct military clashes or simply demands that the United States would leave Iraq, we don't know," Cirincione said in a telephone interview. "But it won't be good."

Iraq is led by a coalition of Shiite religious parties. They include Sadr's bloc, which won 29 parliament seats in Dec. 15 elections. Sadr and the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, which is allied with Iran, each maintain militias of thousands of men.

Fighters in Sadr's Mahdi Army appear to be highly disciplined and loyal. They often march in step through Baghdad in parades that are a mix of martial pride and religious mourning. At times they have mounted rapid, lethal strikes on rivals and enemies. Together, the two militias control much of Iraq's Shiite-dominated south, which borders Iran.

Sadr remained in Tehran on Monday. The Shiite cleric, about 30, has been slowly making his way home from a religious pilgrimage to Mecca, stopping to meet with regional leaders along the way.

Sadr is influential as the scion of a religious family revered by millions of Iraq's Shiites. He has been a steadfast opponent of the U.S. occupation. His fighters battled U.S. forces in Najaf, laying down arms only after a brokered resolution.

Ali Yasiri, the head of Sadr's political office in Baghdad, said the request to Sadr came from the secretary of Iran's Supreme National Security Council, Ali Larijani.

"They asked him a question: 'What would be the Mahdi Army's role if any neighboring country were attacked?' " Yasiri said. "And Moqtada Sadr said, 'If any Arab country, or neighboring country, were attacked, Iraq will help.'

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