- The Washington Times - Sunday, December 26, 2004

PARIS.

Tuesday’s attack on Mosul that left 22 people dead — including 18 Americans — and others like it have created a climate of fear, rendering January elections questionable, and raising the specter of civil war.

Intelligence sources told United Press International that a number of “regional foreign powers are actively involved in Iraq,” pursuing their national interests.

Among those powers — according to an informed source who spoke on condition of anonymity — are the Iranians, Syrians, Saudis, and to a lesser extent, the Kuwaitis.

The Iranians, of course, have a vested interest in Iraq. The Islamic Republic, which in the past experienced tense relations with their Arab neighbor, now enjoys very close ties with their co-religionists. Since Saddam Hussein’s fall in April 2003, the Iranians have become more involved with Iraq’s Shi’ites, hoping to shape the country politically more to their liking.

Sources privy to intelligence reports from the area say tens of thousands of Iranian agents have infiltrated Iraq since the U.S.-led invasion began. The Iranians have very actively assisted the Iraqi Shi’ites with training, arms and finances.

Iraq’s Shi’ites are about 60 to 65 percent of the population, and if the January elections are held — a prospect growing daily dimmer despite assurances from President Bush — the Shi’ites no doubt will emerge with most of the power in Iraq.

It is worth remembering that Iraq holds the world’s second-largest oil reserves after Saudi Arabia. If peace were to take hold, Iraq could resume, and even surpass, prewar production, bringing billions of dollars into the state coffers. That money would allow Iraq to rebuild and regain some of its regional status, a prospect that frightens most of its neighbors.

Iran is well aware of Iraq’s potential and not about to forget what a powerful Iraq can do. A brutal eight-year war fought with Saddam’s Iraq, that saw chemical weapons used and Tehran attacked, cost the Islamic Republic close to 500,000 men. Now that the Iranians have an opportunity to shape Iraq’s politics, they are not about to let the Americans have their say in an area Iran considers of prime importance to its national security.

Saudi Arabia is the other regional power keeping close tabs on Iraqi progress. A strong and politically stable Iraq, oil-rich and financially secure and steady Iraq but controlled by Shi’ites, must give Saudi Arabia’s Sunni Wahhabis nightmares.

Kuwait, Bahrain and Qatar must also lose sleep over the prospect of an emerging Shi’ite power that could unite Iraq with Iran — at least politically — and pose a real threat to the rest of the Arab Gulf monarchies. Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Bahrain and Qatar all are ruled by Sunnis but have large, sometimes restless Shi’ite minorities.

Following the 1979 Islamic Revolution in Iran that deposed the shah and replaced him with an Islamic theocracy, the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini never missed a chance to urge the Shi’ites in neighboring Gulf states to rise against their rulers. Since then, the Arab Gulf states, particularly Saudi Arabia and Kuwait, have been nervous about Shi’ite power. The Saudis and Kuwaitis have kept a watchful eye on Iran’s political ambitions and their own Shi’ite populations.

And now they must worry about Iraq, not to mention Iran’s nuclear desires that do not soothe Saudi anxieties.

Kuwait, for its part, still shudders at the memory of a strong Iraqi military. Memories of the 1990 invasion and occupation of the tiny oil-rich emirate by Saddam’s forces are still fresh. Some Shi’ites complain, however, that Saudis and Kuwaitis have done more than just keep an eye on the Shi’ites. One reliable source, again speaking on condition of anonymity, told UPI he had “seen proof, documents showing Saudi Arabian involvement in supporting the Sunnis in Iraq.” Support of the Sunni insurgency in Iraq would not only be counter to U.S. efforts to stabilize the country but risk igniting a full-scale civil war between Sunni and Shi’ite communities.

Attacks earlier last week in the sacred Shi’ite cities of Najaf and Karbala killed more than 60 people and left twice as many injured. That the bombs were placed less than a quarter mile from the Imam Ali mosque — the most sacred site in Shi’ism — was no accident.

Leaders of the Iraqi Shi’ite community blamed Sunni fundamentalists. They point accusing fingers at Wahhabis in Saudi Arabia. According to an intelligence source, the Wahhabis, also known as Salafis, would intend to prevent the Shi’ite majority from taking legitimate control of the country through the electoral process.

A weakened Iraq would be advantageous to Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Syria — whose rival Ba’ath Party always looked nervously over its shoulder at next-door Iraq. Keeping the Iraqis fighting each other may work to the advantage of Iraq’s neighbors in the short term. But what happens when the unrest starts spilling over Iraq’s borders?

Claude Salhani is international editor of United Press International.

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