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Along border, Kurds say, Iran gives boost to uprising

Page 3 of 3 -- When Iran still operated openly in Kurdistan, Saeed said, locals bribed Iranian officials with television sets to get visas. The PUK, he said, paid the Iranians to restrain the Islamist forces that controlled the valley stretching from Halabja to Iran. There, one group, Komala, or the Islamic Group, led by Ali Bapir, controlled the town of Khurmal. Ansar al-Islam controlled Biyara, and a third allied group, called the Islamic Movement, held Tuwella.

One Kurdish official in Tuwella, named Tahir Mustafa Ali, said the three groups should be viewed as "three wings of the same bird." Ali added that the terror groups responsible for much of the killing, hostage-taking, and bombing in Iraq, despite their different names, should similarly be viewed as part of a single network.

Iran has deep ties with many of the Iraqis who suffered under Saddam Hussein's leadership. They sheltered Kurds when Hussein attacked them with chemical weapons in 1987 and 1988, and in the south they sheltered Shi'ites who were fleeing retribution for the 1991 uprising.

And the Kurds and Shi'ites, among others, who have not secured their future in a post-Hussein Iraq, hesitate to repudiate their erstwhile ally to the west.

"They have been a friend to us," Saeed said. "We do not want to have any problem with Iran."

Daily, about 50 truckloads of legal imports stream into Iraq through this tiny border crossing above Tuwella, carrying cement and soft drinks. The illegal trade is just as important; Iraqi smugglers openly drive by the Iranian checkpoint and, farther down a dirt track, carry goods across the border on foot or by donkey.

At the border post last week, Iranian soldiers -- under the watchful eye of a Revolutionary Guard officer -- refused to speak to a reporter. "The intelligence will punish us if we talk to you," one said with a smile.

Down the dirt track, in the town of Tuwella, the local PUK chief, Ismail Ameen, said he kept his PUK membership a secret during the two years that Islamists ruled Tuwella. Just before the war, in February 2003, he saw six gray Toyota Landcruisers drive into town from the Iranian border. He said the trucks were loaded with bullets and mortar shells for Islamic Movement fighters.

"They would have run out of ammunition . . . without the supplies they got from Iran," he said.

Two top PUK security officials, and three members of the PUK's political bureau, also contended that Iran has continued to support Islamist insurgents.

Majid, head of the PUK's security agency, said that one former Ansar leader, Omar Baziani, had been caught by US forces in Baghdad six months earlier. Through interrogations, authorities heard that Baziani had crossed the border from Iran, Majid said, and had met with Zarqawi in Fallujah.

"It's easy to cross the Iranian border," Majid said. He added that the presence of Islamist terrorists in Iran, and their apparent ease in moving between the two countries, did not prove that Iran was sponsoring the groups.

According to the Kurdish officials, four former Ansar leaders have been arrested in Baghdad, Kirkuk, and the border town of Penjwin in the past six months. All four are believed to have been planning or supervising attacks.

There's a long history in the area of nations giving shelter to their enemies' enemies.

In Iraq, Hussein funded the cult-like Iranian opposition group Mujahedeen-e-Khalk.

In Iran, shelter was given to an array of Iraqi opposition groups, ranging from those considered allied with Tehran's ideology, like the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq, to the secular Iraqi National Congress.

The apparent Iranian ties to mujahedeen groups operating inside Iraq only continues this long Machiavellian tradition, the Kurdish officials said.

"They work with groups like Ansar, whose ideology is so opposed to theirs, because they want to have a card to play in Iraq," Saeed said.

Thanassis Cambanis can be reached at 

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