By Amit R. Paley and Saad al-Izzi
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, August 19, 2006
BAGHDAD, Aug. 18 -- Two Shiite Muslim parties on Friday accused Iran of instigating violence in Iraq and attempting to destabilize the country, exposing a growing rift within Iraq's largest sect that many fear will exacerbate the nation's slide into full-scale civil war.
"All of this violence is because of the Shiism in Iran," Adnan Aboudi, head of the Islamic Allegiance Party, said in a telephone interview. "There are external infiltrating fingers playing now throughout the Iraqi arena." The party is the political wing of cleric Mahmoud Abdul Ridha al-Hassani, who is virulently anti-Iranian and anti-American.
The denunciations of Iran, among the most public attacks to date by Iraqi Shiite groups, echoed the recent concern expressed by President Bush and military officials over Tehran's burgeoning influence in the Middle East. Iran, which is governed by Shiite Persians, has close ties to Hezbollah, the Lebanese Shiite militia that has been warring with Israel, as well as to several of the largest parties in Iraq's Shiite-led government.
The pointed criticism of Iran followed a spate of violent clashes this week in southern Iraq between rival Shiite factions. The unrest served as a reminder of the bitter divisions between various parties in the governing coalition, made up of some factions closely tied to Tehran and others that bitterly criticize it.
A senior official with the Fadhila bloc, a powerful Shiite religious party that controls the oil-rich city of Basra, said Friday that "Iranian individuals are trying to depose Fadhila from the government."
"Iran has many tools and individuals in the country who are doing the things that are wanted by Iran," said the official, Abdul Wahab Razouti, who declined to name those individuals or the groups they belong to.
Juan Cole, a professor of the modern Middle East at the University of Michigan, said the recriminations toward Iran were directed at two of the largest Shiite blocs in parliament, the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq and the Dawa party. The Supreme Council was founded in Iran during Saddam Hussein's rule, and it and Dawa retain strong ties to Iran.
"Those groups are often coded as Iranian puppets," said Cole, the author of the book "Sacred Space and Holy War: The Politics, Culture, and History of Shiite Islam." He said many Iraqis believe that the Supreme Council and its militia, the Badr Organization, receive substantial monetary support from Tehran. "It's obviously in the interest of Iran that parties that are friendly to it remain in power in Iraq," Cole said.
He said the hostility among Shiite factions can be traced to the gap between wealthy members of parties tied to Iran, such as the Supreme Council and Dawa, and impoverished cadres of groups critical of Iran, such as followers of Hassani.
"The Shia-on-Shia violence is, in my view, to some extent a class conflict," he said.
A fuller picture emerged Friday of the latest round of violent skirmishes that broke out between Shiite factions in southern Iraq this week. It apparently began with a car garage.
Followers of Hassani, a cleric in his late thirties based in the Shiite holy city of Karbala, said they noticed a strange car last month in a garage next to the mosque where Hassani's school and office are located. Investigators later discovered that the vehicle was packed with enough explosives to destroy the entire neighborhood, Hassani supporters said. They said a cellphone, which apparently malfunctioned as the bomb detonator, was found inside the car with 17 missed calls.
Hassani aides begged local officials to remove the car and close the garage, but they did nothing, said Aboudi, the head of Hassani's political wing. A few days later, an improvised explosive device blew up about 3 a.m. in front of Hassani's offices. His supporters were convinced that local police forces were responsible because, they said, the device was planted during a nighttime curfew.
Local government officials in Karbala could not be reached for comment Friday. Aboudi called the two incidents assassination attempts and said Iran was behind them. He said local officials did nothing because of their allegiance to Tehran.
Hassani's supporters later seized control of the garage. But Tuesday afternoon, local forces raided the garage, as well as the next-door mosque and Hassani's offices. Seven people were killed by gunfire, and more than 200 followers of the cleric were detained.
An agreement was reached Thursday to end the violence and return the mosque and offices to Hassani's followers. But both sides said prospects remain high for future clashes.
"They are targeting him because he is an Iraqi," said Aboudi, who said Hassani is one of the most prominent Arab Shiite clerics. Most of the other senior clerics are Persian or have ties to Iran.
Hassani, a former civil engineering student who says he has written 128 books, wears the black turban that identifies him as a descendant of the prophet Muhammad.
Followers of Hassani say he is an ayatollah, which means he can issue religious opinions known as fatwas , but others say he never earned that title. His first major clash with Iran came earlier this summer when a cleric in Tehran ridiculed Hassani on a widely watched Iranian television network. Hassani became the butt of jokes after it was said that he claimed to have lunched with the Imam Mahdi, a revered figure that Shiites believe will reemerge before the end of time. Hassani's followers deny that he ever made those remarks, and some attacked the Iranian consulate in Basra with steel bars and construction tools in June, demanding an apology. They never received one.
Although Hassani is still a relatively minor figure, analysts believe that his growing authority represents rising discontent with Tehran.
Although Hassani was originally aligned with anti-American cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, he is now becoming the more radical of the two, said Cole, the professor of Middle Eastern history. "The people that are really dissatisfied with the status quo might be more likely now to follow Hassani," he said.
The U.S. military announced Friday that American and Iraqi forces in Baghdad have killed 97 people associated with death squads and detained 501 others since the launch of a plan last month to quell the relentless sectarian violence in the city. The military said a combined force of 30,000 security personnel has completed more than 49,500 patrols and seized more than 59 weapons caches since the plan, Operation Forward Together, was launched July 9.
Iraq's government on Friday night imposed a two-day ban on cars in Baghdad to prevent violence among the thousands of pilgrims arriving for a holiday this weekend commemorating the death of Imam Musa Kadhim, the eighth imam of Shiite Islam and one of the religion's most revered figures. About 1,000 people were killed last year during the holiday when rumors of a suicide bomber triggered a stampede.
A car bomb that exploded Friday night killed one person and injured four others, Iraqi television reported.
Special correspondent Naseer Nouri and other Washington Post staff contributed to this report.