18:00 ET (AP)
KANICHNARA, Iraq – The fighters say they are Iraqi patriots who came to Kurdish northern Iraq to fight off foreign invaders – but the green telephone at their camp has a sticker identifying it as the property of the Iranian Revolutionary Guards.
They drive the beige Nissan Patrols favored by the Iranian military and speak Farsi, the language of Iran. They are Shiite warriors of the Badr Brigades – the military wing of an Iraqi opposition group based in Iran and supported by that country’s Islamist leadership. And their presence is further complicating an already dangerous ethnic and military mix in Iraq’s volatile north.
The group, the Supreme Council of the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, took part in a failed uprising against Iraqi President Saddam Hussein after the 1991 Gulf War
The Badr brigades have recently expanded their military presence in the autonomous Kurdish enclave in northern Iraq, according to officials of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, which rules the region’s eastern half.
They say the Iraqi Shiite militia placed three new sparsely populated military encampments in the region.
Mola Bakhtiyar, a member of the Patriotic Union’s 13-member leadership council, said 500 to 600 Badr Brigade troops entered northern Iraq in the past few weeks and more were on the way as part of the Iraqi opposition’s agreement at a London conference in December to place all their forces “on high alert.”
Word of the camp at Kanichnara in northeast Iraq, about 35 miles southeast of Sulaymaniyah, as well as two others in Patriotic Union-controlled sections of northern Iraq, was first reported in the latest issue of the weekly Hawlati, an independent Kurdish newspaper.
The Supreme Council, the largest organization representing Iraq’s majority Shiite Muslim population, is led by Ayatollah Mohammad Baqer al-Hakim, a follower of the late Iranian revolutionary leader Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini.
The brigades are equipped and supported by Iran and estimated to number from 5,000 to 30,000 soldiers. Any expansion of the brigades into northern Iraq could have consequences for U.S wartime and postwar planning.
The United States is building up forces in the gulf, threatening to oust Saddam and install a military government in transition to full democracy.
In addition to an assault from the south, the United States has been planning a northern front with the possible help and troops of Turkey, a proposal that has enraged Kurds who have a long history of violence with the Turks.
The plan was thrown into doubt by the Turkish parliament’s failure on Saturday to approve deployment of U.S. soldiers on Turkish soil.
The Kurds have warned that any interference by the Turks could cause other countries in the region, notably Iran, to intervene.
The Supreme Council and its brigades play an active role in the Iraqi opposition. They hold about a third of 65 seats on an opposition steering committee that is expected to guide the transition, and six seats on a leadership committee.
But the United States has expressed serious misgivings about the Islamist group’s role in a future Iraq. The United States and Iran, the Supreme Council’s host, have had no formal diplomatic ties since Iranian radicals stormed the U.S. Embassy in Tehran in 1979.
At an Iraqi opposition conference in northern Iraq, the Supreme Council denounced the United States, its past failure to support the Iraqi opposition and its plans for a period of U.S. military government.
Bakhtiyar, a publisher and outspoken opponent of Islamic fundamentalism, said that while the relationship between the United States and the Supreme Council is complicated, the Council’s relationship to Iraq is simple. “They are an army of the Iraqi opposition,” he said. “They might have 30,000 troops. America can’t ignore them.”
Still, many Kurds say they’re nervous about the increase in Badr Brigade activity.
“Of course, they are part of the Iraqi opposition and they may take part in any future Iraq,” said Mahmoud Hamid Amin, local leader of the Kurdistan Socialist Democratic Party in the nearby city of Darbandekhan, four miles from the Badr camp. “Usually they’re two or five in some small camps. This is the first time we’ve seen them massed in such large numbers.”
A soldier guarding a checkpoint wouldn’t allow The Associated Press to enter the camp or speak with officials. But curious, mostly middle-aged soldiers slowly approached and began chatting amiably with a reporter. One spoke yearningly of his visits to Iran’s Caspian coast.
Another said they were brought here two weeks ago to fight off a Turkish invasion.
The camp, dotted with about 100 tents, hummed with activity Monday. At least two anti-aircraft guns could be seen on hilltops, and soldiers dug positions on other hilltops. Others unloaded Kalashnikovs from a pickup truck.
Nearby residents said they didn’t know much about the soldiers, who they said kept mostly to themselves. One complained that brigadiers had prevented shepherds from letting their sheep loll about on the grassy hills near the camp.
At a long-established Supreme Council base in Maidan, a city 20 miles south of Kanichnara, soldiers also declined requests for information. Posters of Khomeini, al-Hakim and Iranian supreme leader Ali Khamenei hung on the walls.
“Personally, I don’t consider them Iraqis,” said Amin. “I consider them Iranians.”