- The Washington Times - Sunday, April 27, 2003

The second Iraq war began before the first one was over. It started with the April 10 assassination in Najaf, presumably by Iranian agents, of Ayatollah Abdel Majid al-Khoei, a pro-Western moderate Shi'ite Muslim cleric who had returned to Iraq from exile in London.
Unlike the war with Saddam Hussein, this is a war the United States could lose.
The Iranian dissident Amir Taheri reported that two weeks before the start of Operation Iraqi Freedom, Syrian President Bashar Assad flew to Tehran to discuss strategy for the second war.
They agreed on three goals: The first was to hold off a coalition victory for as long as possible. Thousands of Syrians poured into Iraq to fight alongside Saddam's troops. Iraqi Shi'ite parties, financed by and headquartered in Tehran, called upon fellow Shi'ites not to support the Americans and the British. Iranian terrorist cells issued death threats against clerics who wished to welcome coalition forces, and in the case of Ayatollah Khoei carried it out.
The second is to stir up opposition to Iraqi National Congress chief Ahmed Chalabi, a Shi'ite Muslim, but a pro-Western moderate who wants a secular, democratic Iraq.
The third goal is to prevent diplomatic recognition of an interim government set up by the United States. In this the terrorist states have strong support from France, Russia, Germany and Saudi Arabia.
Michael Ledeen, a former National Security Council official whose sources among the opposition in Iran are perhaps the best of any Westerner, thinks the United States has no more than two months to win the hearts and minds of the Shi'ites, who make up about two-thirds of the population of Iraq.
"The Iranians have infiltrated more than 100 highly trained Arab mullahs from Qom and other Iranian religious centers into Iraq, especially to Najaf and Karbala, the holy cities of the Shi'ite faith," Mr. Ledeen wrote this week in his National Review column. "They are poisoning the minds of the (largely uneducated) Iraqi mobs with a simple slogan, repeated five times a day in the mosques: 'America did it for the Jews and the oil.' They are also distributing cash to the Iraqis."
"Just as they did against the shah, the Iranians plan to build a mass following, leading to an insurrection against us," Mr. Ledeen said. "The Iranians will combine this political strategy with terrorist acts and assassinations…. Thousands of Iranian-backed terrorists have been sent to Iraq, from Hezbollah killers to the remnants of al Qaeda, from Islamic Jihadists to top Iranian Revolutionary Guards fighters."
To combat this strategy, Mr. Ledeen thinks, the United States must identify, protect and support moderate Shi'ite clergymen, in particular the senior Shi'ite cleric in Iraq, Ayatollah Ali Mohammed Sistani, whose life was threatened by the same people who killed Ayatollah Khoei, because only Shi'ite religious leaders will have the credibility to expose the Iranian plot.
The United States also should take the war to the enemy, Mr. Ledeen said. Money and communications equipment should be provided to moderate opposition groups in Iran.
"That insane regime is now very frightened, both of us and of their own people," Mr. Ledeen wrote. "The ayatollahs know that the Iranian people long to be free, and the regime has intensified its repression in the run-up to the war. There are several pro-democracy groups that can organize an insurrection in Tehran and other major cities. They need money, satellite phones, laptop computers and the like."
If in the next several months, the United States can frustrate Iranian plans, the regime there could fall quickly, Mr. Ledeen and Mr. Taheri think. Already the leadership is divided between hardliners and accomodationists. If the initiatives of the hardliners appear to be thwarted, the accomodationists could gain the upper hand, Mr. Taheri said.
The Student Movement Coordinating Committee for Democracy in Iran said the dismal turnout for a government-sponsored demonstration in late March against the U.S. war in Iraq indicates that the regime's days are numbered:
"In a capital city of 12 million, only the usual regime lackeys and a few professional 'demonstrators' participated," SMCCDI said. "Even some affiliate groups to the regime … distanced themselves from the event with hope to be able to keep some credibility for the future times of need."

Jack Kelly, a former Marine and Green Beret, was a deputy assistant secretary of the Air Force in the Reagan administration and is national security writer for the Pittsburgh (Pa.) Post-Gazette.

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