The Iranian Connection

At first glance, Abdulaziz Hakim seems to be exactly the kind of friend George W. Bush needs in southern Iraq. The Shiite leader has spent decades fighting Saddam Hussein. On a visit to Washington last August he met Dick Cheney and Donald Rumsfeld, who impressed him with their "good objectives." He says he particularly liked the special room at the Pentagon where Muslims, Christians and Jews pray side by side. Above all, he says, he appreciates Americans' sense of the sacred. "The Europeans don't believe in religion," Hakim told NEWSWEEK last week in the city of Al Kut, 100 miles southeast of Baghdad. "Americans are best at believing in God."

But can they trust Hakim? The smiling Iraqi commands the 10,000 armed members of the Badr Brigades, the military wing of the Iranian-backed Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI). Hakim's older brother, Ayatollah Mohamad Baqir al Hakim, 63, is head of the council, which boycotted last week's U.S.-sponsored gathering of former opposition leaders in An Nasiriya. Now the meeting's organizers are concerned that SCIRI may try to create an Iranian-style "Islamic republic" in Iraq. A wave of anti-American sentiment is spreading across the south, and U.S. officials are particularly worried by the growing number of Iranian operatives pouring in. NEWSWEEK has learned that U.S. intelligence has tracked roughly a dozen Iranian agents directly from Tehran to Al Kut in the last month. "We're absolutely 100 percent positive that there are Iranian operatives in town," says one senior U.S. military intelligence officer. Several, he says, are known members of the Revolutionary Guards.

That could mean trouble. Reformists in Tehran have urged the Hakim brothers to cooperate with other Iraqi groups in forming a new government. But the Revolutionary Guards likely have a different agenda. SCIRI has been tightly linked with them ever since the Iran-Iraq war, when the Badr Brigades fought on the Iranian side against Saddam Hussein. At present, U.S. officials believe that the Iranians in Al Kut are primarily intelligence operatives gathering information and possibly spreading propaganda. What really unsettles U.S. officials is the dawning sense that the Iranians planned in advance to move in as soon as Saddam's men were gone.

Now both Hakims are eager for the Americans to be gone as well. Ayatollah Hakim says SCIRI skipped the An Nasiriya meeting merely because "it wasn't necessary." He insists he wants a democratic government in Iraq. Abdulaziz Hakim says the Badr Brigades are paving the way for his brother's return. "They are already established in southern areas, just as they have a presence in the north and even in Baghdad," Hakim told NEWSWEEK. "In each town maybe there are thousands of people ready to hold arms and fight."

Vast throngs of Shiites are expected in the city of Karbala this week. The pilgrimage, one of the holiest events on their calendar, had been banned by the regime for the last quarter century. Nevertheless, the occasion may well be marked by noisy anti-U.S. protests. Last week a U.S. Marine officer stood on a rooftop in Al Kut, listening to the din of exploding rockets and ammunition from a house that had somehow caught fire nearby. "Smells like Beirut," he said. That was another place where Americans thought they had friends.

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