- The Washington Times - Friday, January 3, 2003

In his fine wool sports coat and Italian shoes Sheikh Hussein al-Shaalan looks nothing like a sheikh. Yet not only is he one himself, but he represents 10 others in central and southern Iraq, where the population of largely Shiite Arabs will prove crucial for any U.S. effort to oust Saddam Hussein — and put in place something resembling order once he's gone.

In the past few months, al-Shaalan, as the London representative for the Tribal Council for Diwan, has become one of several links between this remote population and the U.S. government.

The Diwan is the collective name for the tribes in the south and center of Iraq, comprising the areas of Diania, Middle Ferat, Samawa, Nassiria and Basra.

In a recent interview in London, he said he had received a vague assurance from the State Department official in charge of northern Gulf Affairs, David Pearce, that the United States intends to seek the removal of Saddam Hussein. "If the Americans are coming to remove the regime, then they will have more help from us than they can imagine," al-Shaalan says, sipping sweet tea.

But he is also skeptical. "We don't want to be a victim of a double game once again. We are suffering too much now."

Al-Shaalan, like many Iraqi exiles, remembers all too well the words of the current President's father urging Iraqi Shiites to throw off the yoke of Saddam's regime at the end of the Gulf War — only to be abandoned to their fate by the American military weeks later, when the Iraqi leader used his remaining attack helicopters to put down revolts in the Shiite south and Kurdish north of Iraq.

Shiites make up between 55 and 60 percent of the Iraqi population.

Al-Shaalan is an important contact for the Bush Administration because he is one of a handful of Shiite leaders who is not formally connected to the Islamic Republic of Iran.

By contrast the other main Iraqi Shiite organization, the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, or SCIRI, has worked on and off with the U.S. government since 1992 but has close links with Tehran.

SCIRI's activities are largely coordinated by the wing of Iran's Republican Guard responsible for the export of the Islamic Revolution, the Nasr Command. This same organization is responsible for funding and training Hezbollah and the Palestinian Islamic Jihad, organizations on the U.S. list of international terror groups.

But in the early 1990s SCIRI also reluctantly joined the once CIA supported Iraqi National Congress, an umbrella organization for Iraqi opposition groups. As a result, the organization has become a de facto voice for Iraq's Shiite community within the U.S.-backed Iraqi opposition, even though its leadership articulates a theocratic vision for Iraq along the same lines as Iran.

SCIRI's enmeshment with Iran's security services and military makes it, in many ways, an important interlocutor between the United States and Iran because there are no diplomatic relations between the two countries. But at the same time, the organization also has used its influence within the opposition to advance Iran's national interests.

At a meeting of Iraqi opposition leaders in London last month, many independent Shiite figures present warned U.S. officials of the pernicious role SCIRI might play in Iraq's political affairs once Saddam is gone. SCIRI leader Muhammed Baqr al-Hakim "is more or less trying to apply the Iranian model to Iraq," Mostafa al-Qwazwini, a cleric who studied in the Iranian holy city of Qom and now lives in Los Angeles said in an interview. "We are saying we want democracy for Iraq."

Al-Shaalan was careful to say he had neighborly relations with the Iranians but also conceded that Iranian support for SCIRI and other Shiia organizations had its price. "Iran wants to represent all the Shiites and the Arab Shiites in Iraq want to represent themselves."

So far the Americans have been playing both sides. Quietly the State Department has cultivated individuals outside of SCIRI connected to the Iraq's Shiite population, and the CIA has begun recruiting such individuals on the ground inside Iraq, according to U.S. officials. Nonetheless, SCIRI has also been courted inside a U.S.-backed opposition committee established last month in London.

Out of 65 seats selected for the new opposition panel (10 more names will be added in the coming days), 15 will go to SCIRI — making it the largest single bloc among the various parties represented on the committee which is scheduled to meet later this month in northern Iraq.

The Bush Administration has yet to make a decision on how much influence SCIRI will be allowed to have in future opposition activities. Instead, as one U.S. official told United Press International, "We are placing all bets."

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