TELEGRAPH.UK – Iran has dispatched hundreds of agents posing as pilgrims and traders to Iraq to foment unrest in the holy cities of Najaf and Kerbala, and the lawless frontier areas. Teheran’s hardline regime has also allowed extremist fighters from Ansar al-Islam, a terror faction with close links to al-Qa’eda, to cross back into Iraq from its territory to join the anti-American resistance.
The Pentagon believes that Iran is building a bridgehead of activists inside Iraq, ready to destabilise the country if that serves its future interests. So concerned is the coalition about Teheran’s activities that it is recruiting former agents from the Iranian section of Saddam Hussein’s notorious mukhabarat (intelligence) to help to counter Iran’s influence in the predominantly Shia south and east of Iraq.
“They are provoking sectarian divisions, inciting people against the Americans and trying to foment conflict and anarchy,” said Abdulaziz al-Kubaisi, a former Iraqi major who was jailed by Saddam and is now a senior official in the Iraqi National Congress.
“The last thing that certain elements in the regime want is to see a stable democratic and pluralistic Iraq next door, so they are trying to export trouble here,” said a leading official in another Iraqi party.
Although Iran’s president is a political moderate, true power remains in the hands of the fundamentalist clergy. At a time when Iran is facing domestic discontent over the slow progress of democratic reform and mounting international pressure over its nuclear programme, hardline elements believe that instability in Iraq will distract attention from the regime’s problems.
The National Council of Resistance in Iran, an opposition group, claims that some translators working for the United States forces are reporting back to Teheran. It also says that its informants within the regime have supplied details of senior Iranian intelligence commanders who are operating inside Iraq.
Paul Bremer, the American head of the Coalition Provisional Authority, has already accused Iran of “meddling” in Iraq’s internal affairs and backing some attacks on American forces.
On Friday, he confirmed that several hundred members of Ansar, which set up a Taliban-style mini-state in Kurdish-controlled territory in 2001, had re-entered Iraq. “They are a very dangerous group,” he said in Washington. “The flow of terrorists into Iraq is the biggest obstacle to the reconstruction of the country.”
Mr Bremer revealed that US forces are holding 19 al-Qaeda suspects among 248 non-Iraqi fighters captured in Iraq. Most came from Syria, but the second largest group were Iranians.
At the start of the war to topple Saddam, Kurdish militia and US special forces had crushed Ansar’s 750-strong force of Arabs, Pakistanis, Chechens and Kurds. About 250 Ansar fighters were killed and another 100 captured, but Iran’s military turned a blind eye as the rest escaped across the mountainous border.
Most have returned to the violent flashpoints west and north of Baghdad, according to US military officials, Kurdish political leaders and former mukhabarat officers.
Ansar adheres to the same extremist Sunni Muslim interpretation of Islam as al-Qa’eda. Although Iran follows the alternative Shia version of Islam, its hardline military rulers have allowed Ansar to regroup and return to Iraq because they share its anti-American cause.
Iran has also taken advantage of its largely unpoliced border with Iraq – a 210-mile stretch of which was yesterday turned over to an American-trained police force by the US Army – to deploy agents who are building networks of spies.
One Iraqi of ethnic Iranian origin, who returned to Najaf after 23 years in Iran and who has contacts with Teheran’s intelligence services, told The Telegraph that he has seen many Iranian agents mingling with visitors to the city.
Last week, many of the visiting pilgrims were speaking Farsi (Persian). Long-banned pictures of Ayatollah Khomeini, the leader of the Islamic revolution in Iran in 1979, are once again on sale in the markets of the town where he spent part of his early exile.
The returning Iraqi exile said that several agents from the political wing of the Revolutionary Guards had been deployed to Najaf, some operating within the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq, one of the “Big Five” political parties.
Iran denies the allegations of interference or sending agents to Iraq, saying that it has already recognised the Governing Council (the US-installed Shia-dominated transitional authority).
The Iranian opposition, however, says that the Quds force of the regime’s Revolutionary Guards, which specialises in foreign operations, commands the loyalty of key commanders within the Badr Brigade, the Iranian-trained militia army of the SCIRI.
• American troops uncovered a large weapons cache yesterday at a farm near Saddam’s birthplace, Tikrit, including 23 Russian-made surface-to-air missiles and a huge quantity of explosives used in the homemade bombs that have killed numerous American soldiers in the area.
A tip led troops to the cache, buried in a river bank near the village of Uja. It included 1,000lb of plastic explosives, four rocket-propelled grenade launchers and 115 rockets, a mortar and 40 mortar rounds, 1,300 blasting caps and 423 hand grenades.