- The Washington Times - Monday, July 7, 2003

BAGHDAD — Shi’ites in the Iranian holy city of Qom are offering payments of up to $300 to Iraqi religious students, many of whom fled Saddam Hussein’s rule, if they return to their hometowns and preach Islam for six to nine weeks.

The program, sponsored by an organization based in Qom known as the International Center for Islamic Studies, began about a month ago, said Ali Behbehani, an Iraqi Shi’ite Muslim who fled with his family to Iran in the 1980s and returned to Iraq last month.

“They have offered $200 to $300 to those Iraqis who would volunteer to return to their city of origin and preach Islam for a period of six to nine weeks. After that we can either return to Qom or continue to live in Iraq and earn our living,” Mr. Behbehani said.

Iran’s religious ties with Iraq are a source of concern for U.S. authorities in Baghdad, who fear Iran is working covertly to establish a militant anti-American government in Iraq.

Iranian Muslims are predominantly Shi’ite, as are about 60 percent of Iraqis.

“It is clear and it is incontrovertible that elements within the Iranian government are interfering in Iraq’s internal affairs. We see that against our interests and, more importantly, against the interests of the Iraqi people,” said L. Paul Bremer, the top U.S. official in Iraq, at a recent press conference.

Said another senior U.S. official, who asked not to be named, “We know the Iranians have been trying to sneak in through their allies within the ranks of the Shi’ite religious leaders. There also have been reports of the presence of Iranian Revolutionary Guards in the south.”

Mr. Behbehani said the Qom center is home to some 500 Iraqi religious students and about 2,000 others from Afghanistan, Pakistan, India, Europe, and the United States.

It is not clear whether the Qom center has similar return programs for other countries.

Mr. Behbehani said his minders in Qom told him not to contact other students from Qom, and not to touch base with Iraqi Shi’ite religious leaders.

Those instructions raise the possibility of Iran operating a network of preachers apart from the Shi’ite leadership in Iraq.

A senior adviser to one such leader, Ayatollah Mohammed Baqer Hakim, head of the Supreme Council of the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), downplayed the potential Iranian role.

“According to the Shi’ite system of leadership, it is very common for some Iraqis to get paid from Qom, just as it is very possible that some people in Qom might be getting paid from Najaf,” said the adviser, Abdel Hamed Bayati.

The SCIRI leader spent more than two decades in exile in Iran before returning to Iraq in April.

But since his return, Ayatollah Hakim has maintained a low profile in the Iraqi holy city of Najaf and has not made a single trip to Baghdad.

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