NAJAF — New evidence is emerging on the ground of an Iranian hand in growing violence within Iraq.
As the United States heads for a confrontation with Iran over allegations of Iranian involvement in bombings, the massacre in Najaf last month indicates that Iran could be working also through the Iraqi government, local leaders in Najaf say.
The slaughter of 263 people in Najaf by Iraqi and U.S. forces Jan. 29 provoked outrage and vows of revenge among residents in and around the sacred Shia city in the south. The killings have deepened a split among Shias.
Iran is predominantly Shia, one of the two main groupings within Islam along with the Sunnis. Iraq has for the first time a Shia-dominated government, comprising groups that have been openly supportive of Iran.
The people killed were mostly Shias from the Hawatim tribe that opposes the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq as well as the Dawa Party. These two pro-Iranian groups control the local government in Najaf and the government in Baghdad.
The Najaf attack has provoked strong reactions among members of the Hawatim tribe and among other Shia groups who are not loyal to Iran – and who became the target in those killings.
An attack on a local tribal leader led to an assault on members of the tribe by U.S., British and Iraqi forces. The tribe was described by government officials as a “messianic cult.”
Abid Ali who witnessed the Najaf fighting told IPS that a procession of roughly 200 pilgrims from the Hawatim tribe had arrived in the Zarqa area near Najaf to celebrate the Ashura festival. Following a confrontation over the procession, Iraqi army soldiers at a checkpoint shot dead Hajj Sa’ad Sa’ad Nayif al-Hatemi, chief of the tribe, as he and his wife sat in their car.
Members of the tribe then attacked the checkpoint to avenge the death of their chief.
“It was after this that the Iraqi army called in the Americans, and the planes began bombing civilians,” Ali said. “It was a massacre. Now I believe the internal Shia fighting has entered a very dangerous phase.”
Ali added that most people in the area believe the U.S. military was told by Iraqi security forces loyal to the pro-Iranian government in Baghdad that “terrorists” or the “messianic cult” was attacking Najaf. They say the misinformation was intended to mislead occupation forces into attacking the tribe.
Many Shias in the southern parts of the country and in Baghdad now say they had been fooled earlier by U.S. promises to help them, but that the Najaf massacre has dramatically changed their views.
Significantly, the Association of Muslim Scholars, a group of Sunni Muslims headed by Dr. Harith al-Dhari, issued a statement condemning the Iraqi-U.S. military attack in Najaf against the Hawatim tribe. The statement, which seeks to bridge a Shia-Sunni divide, denounced the killing of dozens of women and children and added, “It was an act of vengeance and political termination.”
“They (the United States) were misled, and their last move in Najaf shows how the smart Iranians are leading the Americans deeper into Iraqi sands,” Jaafar al-Jawadi, a political analyst from Baghdad told IPS.
“I really admire the way Iranians are dealing with the situation in a professional way while the Americans are walking with their eyes closed. They are losing the last Iraqi fort they were hiding behind, and that was the peaceful way Arab Shias were dealing with occupation.”
Jawadi who is also a former Shia politician says he once believed in U.S. promises of liberation for Iraqis, particularly the Shia population. Like many other Iraqis, he now believes that the United States has been used by the pro-Iranian government in Baghdad to carry out attacks against Shia tribes in southern Iraq who have recently become more and more anti-occupation.
“I do not really understand what those Americans are doing because now they are just like an elephant in a china shop, and everything they do is terribly wrong as if they are committing suicide,” Talib Ahmad, a lawyer and human rights activist in Najaf told IPS.
“Iran is benefiting from that for sure. Americans are simply fighting for Iran who appears to be the winner in Iraq after all.”
Many Iraqis are amazed at the unlimited support the U.S. administration has been presenting to what many now call an Iranian-Iraqi government. The new U.S. condemnation of Iran could be a first sign that the United States is getting wise to the fact that it is being fooled by Iran.
The U.S. administration is, however, pointing the finger at Iran, and not at the government in Baghdad that it props up.
(Ali al-Fadhily is our Baghdad correspondent. Dahr Jamail is our specialist writer who has spent eight months reporting from inside Iraq and has been covering the Middle East for several years.)