News On Iran & Its NeighboursIraqFocus: How Tehran pulls the strings of insurrection

Focus: How Tehran pulls the strings of insurrection

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The Sunday Times – Iraq’s former defence chief tells Robert Winnett he warned of the Iranian threat: As the US special forces Hercules flew low over the desert in March 2003 before landing behind enemy lines, Hazim al-Shalan prepared to step onto Iraqi soil for the first time in almost 20 years. The Sunday Times

Iraq’s former defence chief tells Robert Winnett he warned of the Iranian threat

As the US special forces Hercules flew low over the desert in March 2003 before landing behind enemy lines, Hazim al-Shalan prepared to step onto Iraqi soil for the first time in almost 20 years.

Shalan — the exiled leader of a Shi’ite tribe with 1m members worldwide and 250,000 in southern Iraq — had already been helping British and American intelligence for several months. Now his task was to organise support among the Shi’ite population for the imminent invasion.

After the fall of Saddam Hussein he rose from resistance organiser to provincial governor and defence minister. Now, however, he is back in London saying that he is wholly disillusioned.

Lucky to be alive after 15 attempts on his life and accused of fraud by his former colleagues, Shalan warned last week that the country is gradually being taken over by Iran with devastating potential consequences.

Talking exclusively to The Sunday Times, he said that the Iranians influence the Iraqi police and army and even the interim government.

More than 460 Iranian intelligence agents have been captured in the country, but many thousands more are openly operating, he said.

According to Shalan, the Iranian intelligence service began infiltrating Iraq two months before the allied invasion.

When Saddam began withdrawing troops from outlying regions to protect Baghdad, Iranian intelligence officers “entered through the desert, between 200 and 250 of them carrying just Kalashnikovs and light communication equipment”.

After the invasion, the infiltrators reported back to Tehran that American troops were busy providing critical services such as water, food and medical assistance to Iraqis.

“The Iranians decided there was an opportunity to send large numbers of people very quickly into Iraq. Thousands of Iranians and Iraqi exiles who had joined the militia in Iran began arriving with money to buy houses,” said Shalan.

They sought positions of influence on the new councils and other bodies being formed.

“I talked to the Americans about it, told them trouble was building,” said Shalan, who was at the time a governor in charge of the city of Diwaniyah, with 1m residents. “But the Americans said the Iranians were not effective and not a threat.

“They had received assurances from Tehran that Iran was not trying to get involved.”

Iranian intelligence then started to give out small cash gifts to Iraqis who agreed to co-operate by voting for certain candidates or taking part in local demonstrations, said Shalan. He also claimed that Iraqis were “recruited” for military training.

“The Iranians began taking people to camps just over the border in the Diyala desert region,” he said. “In these camps the Iraqis were being taught military or terrorist techniques; but there was also a very strong religious element. Thousands of men from Najaf, Karbala, Diwaniyah, Basra were being brainwashed, turned into extremists and taught to fight. They were paid between $100 and $200 a month.”

Shalan said he set up an undercover team to infiltrate the camps and report back. He compiled evidence that recruits returning to Iraq were joining the local police forces and army. He said he sent the analysis to his contacts in American military intelligence.

During 2004, according to Shalan, the “situation developed more”. The Iranians began targeting Shi’ite officers in the army and police who were offered payments of $300 a month to attend courses with the Iranian army in Tehran.

Shalan was by now the defence minister on the interim Iraqi governing council and infiltrated the courses with undercover agents. They discovered 15 Iraqi army officers from Basra, three from Nasiriya and 20 from Amarah undergoing training. “In September 2004 I sent the information to American military intelligence,” said Shalan. “I warned them: they are being trained to attack you.”

Artillery trailers, howitzers, grenades, rocket-propelled grenades and Kalashnikovs — all bearing Iranian symbols — were intercepted while being smuggled into Iraq.

Under interrogation, a “failed” suicide bomber revealed the existence of an Iranian car bomb factory a few hundred metres from the Iraqi border at the closest point to Baghdad.

“It was incredibly sophisticated,” said Shalan. “They were using cars with two fuel tanks and converting one tank into a bomb.”

At the end of 2003, a captured Iranian colonel revealed another factory near the border in southern Iran which made remote-control bombs. He claimed that more than 3,000 had been smuggled into Iraq. This was corroborated by other intelligence, said Shalan.

He believes that the Iranians have two aims: to ensure Iraq becomes a religious state over which they have influence or control, and to keep the Americans under pressure.

“The insurgency is a diversionary tactic by Iran to keep the American army busy,” he said. “The Iranian mission is to tie up the Americans for as long as possible so they can develop nuclear weapons.

“However, if the Americans pull out of Iraq my assessment is that the Iranians would be able to take control very quickly.

“Then there really would be a serious threat to world peace. Can you imagine the Iranians controlling all that oil?” Shalan felt some vindication last week when Donald Rumsfeld, the American defence secretary, said the Iranians “have put people in there. They have put money in there and it’s a very difficult thing to stop”.

Shalan has left Iraq under a cloud, however. Members of the government are said to be drawing up charges against him for fraud at the defence department, which he strongly denies. The details are sparse and no charges have been laid since allegations were first made at the beginning of the year while he was still defence minister.

At the time Ahmad Chalabi, a rival Shi’ite leader and former protégé of Washington, claimed that $300m had been removed clandestinely from the central bank and flown to Lebanon.

The defence ministry responded that it had been a legitimate cash transfer to buy armaments; and Shalan threatened to have Chalabi arrested over his alleged involvement in a financial scandal in Jordan during the 1990s.

Chalabi is now deputy prime minister in the government formed since Iraq’s election, and Shalan is out of office. He has hired Dean & Dean, a firm of London lawyers, to defend him against his accusers in a legal action in the high court.

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