Voice of America: With four-days left before Iraq holds a referendum on a new constitution, some Iraqis are voicing concern that the charter could deepen neighboring Iran’s influence in Iraq and provoke a conflict, which could spill over into other countries in the region. Voice of America
By Alisha Ryu
Baghdad – With four-days left before Iraq holds a referendum on a new constitution, some Iraqis are voicing concern that the charter could deepen neighboring Iran’s influence in Iraq and provoke a conflict, which could spill over into other countries in the region.
For months, secular Iraqi politicians like Mithal al-Alousi have been warning that Shi’ite Iran is trying to stoke sectarian tension and is aiming to create a breakaway Islamic state in the mostly-Shi’ite southern Iraq.
“I am very sure we have Iranian influence in Basra. We have Iranian influence in Amarah. We have the Iranian intelligence agency. They have control in Basra,” he said.
U.S. and British military intelligence officials say they believe Iran is running intelligence-gathering operations in southern Iraq and providing arms and money to several active Islamic groups operating in the region.
The groups are accused of carrying out attacks on coalition forces, imposing Islamic laws by force, and assassinating former members of Saddam Hussein’s Ba’ath Party.
The largest of these Islamic groups is the Badr Organization, a Shi’ite militia force of about 20,000 men, trained by the Iranian Revolutionary Guards. The Badr group also acts as the armed wing of the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), which operated out of Iran for decades during Saddam’s rule and is now the largest and the most powerful political party in Iraq.
The head of the SCIRI party, religious cleric Abdul Aziz al-Hakim, has been the leading proponent of a provision in Iraq’s draft constitution, which calls for the creation of a Shi’ite mini-state in the oil-rich south.
The federalist arrangement is also supported by members of the Islamic Dawa Party, led by interim Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari. Like SCIRI, the Dawa Party has strong ties to Iran.
The push for federalism by the two Shi’ite entities has raised alarm among Sunni Arabs, who lost power to the country’s majority Shi’ites after the fall of Saddam. The Sunnis fear the charter could prompt Iraqi Shi’ites in the south to unite with Iranian Shi’ites to form an oil-rich super region that answers to Tehran instead of Baghdad.
A Sunni Arab businessman in the capital, Yassir Mohammed, says he believes if the constitution passes and Shi’ite Muslims grow stronger, it may cause Sunni radicals like Jordanian-born terrorist Abu Musab al-Zarqawi to step up their attacks against Shi’ites and ignite a full-scale sectarian war.
“Of course the Arab Sunnis in Iraq are afraid of federalism in the constitution because the Shi’ites will have their own federalism in the south and then the Iranians will have direct interference in Iraq,” he said. “I think the constitution should be toward calming and stabilizing the situation in Iraq, and in my opinion, this step will not be helpful.”
Even some Iraqi Shi’ites say they are frightened by the prospect of a religious war breaking out as a result of the referendum. Shi’ite merchant Shakir Ali says he believes a war between the Sunnis and Shi’ites will force a response from all the regional powers and set in motion a larger regional conflict.
“Syria, Turkey, Iran,” said Mr. Ali. “We have fear from the result (of the referendum) if they cut some pieces of Iraq. We do not like this. I think this is no good.”
Last month, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld accused Tehran of being what he termed unhelpful in Iraq. Iran denies it is seeking to expand its influence into Iraq and says it is being blamed for America’s failures.