LONDON — British military intelligence officers believe that Iranian Revolutionary Guards are responsible for training and supporting members of the Shi’ite group that seized and threatened to kill two British troopers in Basra last week.
They are investigating suspected links between Iran and more than a dozen groups in southern Iraq that are believed to be behind the upsurge in attacks on coalition forces.
“We know that scores of Iranian agents have been operating in southern Iraq, and we have received reports that the group that briefly held the two British soldiers has links to Iran,” said a senior coalition security officer. “From what we have seen, the Iranians are setting out to incite the local Shia to attack coalition troops.”
The two soldiers, who were working undercover and wore Arab dress, were arrested on Monday by police after reportedly killing an Iraqi policeman who was trying to detain them.
British troops, who are responsible for security in the area, later that day stormed a Basra jail looking for their two men. A further raid was then mounted on a nearby house to free them after the soldiers had been spirited away from the jail by Shi’ite militiamen.
On Thursday, local authorities in the town announced they were halting cooperation with British forces because of the British action. And yesterday, an Iraqi judge issued arrest warrants for the British soldiers.
Accounts from Basra suggest that the abduction of the men from a police station was the work of the Mahdi’s Army street militia, loyal to Moqtada al-Sadr. The militia is believed to have been forging closer links with Iran since its failed uprising against the coalition last year.
The Mahdi’s Army was once distrusted by the clerical regime in Tehran because of its strongly Iraqi nationalist bent. But in recent months, Iran is thought to have initiated a closer relationship to destabilize British-controlled southern Iraq.
Six British troops and two security guards have been killed by Islamist insurgents during the past few months, and the British military fears that the violence will intensify before next month’s referendum on Iraq’s new constitution.
On Thursday, Saudi Arabia’s foreign minister, Prince Saud al-Faisal, told reporters in Washington that he was concerned over reports of Iranian military, financial and political meddling in Iraq’s affairs. And earlier in the summer, Britain and the United States lodged official complaints with Tehran over its continued interference in southern Iraq. Apart from sending Revolutionary Guards, the Iranians have been blamed for smuggling arms to Iraqi insurgents, including the infrared devices used against British patrols.
British officials believe that the Iranians recently have intensified their efforts to disrupt coalition efforts to establish a functioning democracy.
Many of Iran’s hard-line clerics are concerned about the establishment of a secular Shi’ite government in Baghdad. Even though Islamists won the recent general election in Iran, they fear a challenge from the vocal, and influential, lobby that wants to loosen the ayatollahs’ grip on power in Tehran.
The mullahs fear that if, as expected, Shi’ites take control of Iraq after the referendum, the secular government will be a challenge to the hard-line theocracy that holds sway in Iran.
But although Iran’s involvement in southern Iraq is a cause for deepening concern in both Washington and London, an even bigger problem for British forces in the region is the growing radicalization of local Shi’ites.
When British troops were first stationed in Iraq after the overthrow of Saddam Hussein, they were generally welcomed as liberators and developed good relations with tribal leaders. That relationship has begun to unravel as rival Shi’ite groups jostle for position in advance of elections due next year.
While the majority of Iraq’s Shi’ites are happy to settle for the secular constitution currently proposed, some of the more radical groups, particularly those with ties to Teheran, are insisting that Iraq adopt a more Islamist form of government.