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Profile: Opposition Group Claiming to Represent Iraqi Shias Enters Northern Iraq

All Things Considered: March 10, 2003

Iraq's Shiites To Rise against Saddam



MICHELE NORRIS, host:

Arab Shia Muslims are the largest ethnic and religious group in Iraq, more than 50 percent of the population. An exiled opposition group, known as the Supreme Council of Islamic Revolution in Iraq, claims to represent Iraqi Shias. Based in neighboring Iran, the council has begun moving armed fighters into northern Iraq. NPR's Ivan Watson reports from Banny B(ph) in northern Iraq.

IVAN WATSON reporting:

Shepherd Jamal Darouche(ph) herds his flock of sheep across a lush rock-strewn field past a group of men in camouflage uniforms who are hard at work, putting up tents.

SOUNDBITE OF SHEEP BLEATING

WATSON: On a hillside several hundred yards away stand nearly 100 more tents, guarded by several anti-aircraft batteries perched on neighboring ridges. The shepherd says this is a new military camp, built by more than a thousand fighters who all came here form nearby Iran just two or three weeks ago. The small army is made up of Arab Shia Muslims, whose traditional homeland is in southern Iraq.

Unidentified Man #1: (Through Translator) They are refugees, and they also opposition of Iraq, and we like anyone who's against Saddam Hussein. And also, they are Iraqis, and they are harmless.

WATSON: In fact, these fighters are part of what's called the Badr Brigade, the military wing of an Iraqi Shia rebel group that's long lived in exile in neighboring Iran. In recent months, this movement, known as the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, has joined a larger alliance of opposition groups, all determined to overthrow Saddam Hussein. At an Iraqi opposition conference hosted by the Kurds in northern Iraq last month, Supreme Council leader Mohammed Baqir Hakim issued this warning to Baghdad.

Mr. MOHAMMED BAQIR HAKIM (Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq): (Through Translator) ...better forces which they are ready to defend the Iraqi people against the regime if the regime decide to attack or to hurt the Iraqi people.

WATSON: After the Gulf War in 1991, Shias revolted in the south, inspired in part by a speech from President George Bush, which called for the Iraqi people to rise up against Saddam Hussein. Though the uprising was initially successful, the US military did not support the rebellion, and the revolt was quickly crushed by loyalist Iraqi forces. To this day, many Shias remain deeply suspicious of the US. At last month's opposition conference, Dr. Hamed al Bayati, a top official from the Supreme Council, said his movement was worried about Washington's plans for a post-Saddam Iraq.

Dr. HAMED AL BAYATI (Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq): We don't know what the American plans are. We don't know what the role of the opposition the American envisage in the change of process and the future of Iraq.

WATSON: Badr Brigade members at the newly constructed Shia camp in Banny B, northern Iraq, were less diplomatic. They denounced reports of a US plan to put an American military governor in charge of Iraq, if and when the Baghdad regime is toppled.

Unidentified Man #2: (Through Translator) If America won't come to liberate Iraqi from Saddam Hussein, we won't kill him. And if they came to invade Iraq and to occupy Iraq, they will be more enemy than Saddam Hussein, more greater enemy than Saddam Hussein.

WATSON: Publicly, Kurdish officials welcomed the recent arrival of what they call their Shia brothers, but there are some here who distrust the Supreme Council, in part because it is led by a conservative religious leader, but also because the group reportedly received some weapons and funding from Iran. Washington has already expressed concern about the newly arrived Badr Brigade. Last week, a State Department spokesman said the presence of any Iran-backed group in northern Iraq was not good. Ivan Watson, NPR News, Banny B in northern Iraq.

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