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.'
"That doesn't mean that he meant the Mahdi Army," Yasiri said. "He meant Iraq as a country will help, and not necessarily militarily."
Yasiri said his account came from Sadr officials accompanying the Iraqi cleric in Tehran.
However, a Sadr spokesman in Najaf, the Shiite holy city in southern Iraq that is Sadr's base, gave a different account of the agreement between Sadr and Iran, as did Iran's official Islamic Republic News Agency.
"Moqtada Sadr said, 'If any Islamic state, especially the Islamic Republic of Iran, is attacked, the Mahdi Army would fight inside and outside Iraq,' " said the spokesman, Sahib Amiri.
"Iran is an Islamic country that has strong relations with the Shiites in Iraq. We do not forget these relations," Amiri said.
Amiri said Sadr was visiting Iran "to support the Iranian people and government against any possible attack against the Islamic republic."
In Tehran, the state news agency also reported that Sadr had committed his Iraqi militia to fight on Iran's behalf.
"If neighboring Islamic countries, including Iran, become the target of attacks, we will support them," IRNA quoted Sadr as saying. "The Mahdi Army is beyond the Iraqi army," Sadr said, according to IRNA. "It was established to defend Islam."
Iran revived its atomic research program earlier this month, ending a two-year moratorium. While Iran says it intends to develop nuclear energy solely for electricity, Western countries fear the Shiite theocracy is in pursuit of its own atomic bomb.
Israel, a reported atomic power, which destroyed an Iraqi nuclear facility in an airstrike in 1981, has issued what some have seen as threats of similar preemptive strikes in Iran.
French President Jacques Chirac said Thursday that France was prepared to launch a nuclear strike against any country that sponsors a terrorist attack against French interests. He said his country's nuclear arsenal had been reconfigured to include the ability to make a tactical strike in retaliation for terrorism.
Iran has responded unflinchingly, with its Foreign Ministry saying Sunday that Israel would be making a "fatal mistake" if it resorted to military action.
Iraq's Shiite-led government, which came to power after the 2003 toppling of Saddam Hussein, has affirmed close ties with Iran. Prospective candidates for Iraq's prime minister post have first gone to Tehran for approval. Iran has poured aid into Iraq, and trade agreements have blossomed.
U.S. and British diplomats and commanders accuse Iran of allowing -- or encouraging -- transport of arms and fighters into Iraq to stage attacks.
On Monday, a senior U.S. military intelligence official said the British government had issued a formal protest to Tehran after sophisticated bombs began appearing in southeastern Iraq. The devices used the same kind of electronic triggers found in bombs made by the militant group Hezbollah in Lebanon, the official said.
"Our belief is that the machining is done somewhere in Iran," said the official, speaking on condition of anonymity.
Aides to Sadr said the cleric also visited Saudi Arabia, where he asked King Abdullah to press the United States for a deadline for a U.S. withdrawal from Iraq. The aides said Sadr also visited Lebanon, where he had an appointment with Hasan Nasr Allah, a Hezbollah leader.
Ridha Jawad Taqi, a spokesman for the Supreme Council, Iraq's dominant party, would not comment Monday on whether Iran had asked for similar help from the party or its militia, the Badr Organization, in the event of attack, or on what the Supreme Council's response might be if Iran did make such a request.
Staff writer Thomas E. Ricks and special correspondent Bassam Sebti in Baghdad, and special correspondent Saad Sarhan in Najaf contributed to this report.