Iraqi Group Accuses Iran of Fueling Violence

One of Iraq's Shiite Muslim militias makes the claim that Iran is interfering in Iraq. Led formally by Muqtada al-Sadr, the militia is accused of spreading terror through Baghdad and beyond. And when you focus on Sadr and his followers, you get a sense of the many forces shaping Iraq's violence.

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LYNN NEARY, host:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Lynn Neary in for Renee Montagne.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

And I'm Steve Inskeep.

Americans and some of their fiercest critics are making the same claim about Iran this week. The U.S. makes the claim publicly. As they imposed new sanctions on Iran, they accused it of interfering in nearby Iraq. One of Iraq's Shiite Muslim militias makes the same claim. That militia is led, at least formerly, by Moqtada al-Sadr. It's accused of spreading terror through Baghdad and beyond. And when you focus on Sadr and his followers, you get a sense of the many forces shaping Iraq's violence.

NPR's Anne Garrels is in Baghdad. She's been covering Sadr's militia for years.

And Anne, you get a sense in your coverage that a lot of Sadr's followers aren't really following him anymore. How much trouble is this guy in?

ANNE GARRELS: The movement is really fractured. Many acting in Sadr's name have basically moved into criminal activity or they are carrying out attacks on both Americans and Iraqis that are backfiring. And Sadr has all but acknowledged he's lost control and he has repeatedly called for a halt to all military activity so that his movement can distinguish between loyal Sadrists and bad ones.

INSKEEP: So what is the result of all that?

GARRELS: There has been a drop in militia activity in some areas, but groups acting in the name of Sadr still continue to operate. Some militia leaders I have talked to dismissed Sadr and say they're going to keep doing what they have to, to retain control in their respective areas.

INSKEEP: Well, now this gets to the question that's on the minds of many Americans right now, which is what is Iran's role in all this violence?

GARRELS: Well, increasingly militia leaders say that Iran is playing a counterproductive role. Now, Sadr has distinguished himself all along from other Shiite parties who were in exile in Iran and maintain close ties with Iran, casting himself as an Iraqi nationalist, but recently he's been spending months in Iran, apparently seeking safe haven there. And his militia leaders say Iran is their chief source of weapons. But now these same leaders are saying Iran is creating big problems by supporting renegade and competing militias with very effective weapons.

The head of Sadr's militia in the western side of Baghdad invited NPR to an interrogation session of three of these renegade Sadr militiamen, apparently to show us how the movement is cleaning up its ranks. We were not allowed to tape it. In the Sadr safe house, the three detainees had clearly been tortured and the story they told was that they were trained in roadside bombs and car bombings in Iran. They say they worked for money and that their orders were to attack Americans and sow suspicion and violence between Shiites and Sunnis.

INSKEEP: How were they tortured?

GARRELS: There was blood all over their clothes. They were in such bad shape they couldn't walk. They had to be dragged onto the chairs, and one of them was just sobbing.

INSKEEP: Well, if the story that these tortured prisoners told was true - if it's true - how were they sowing suspicion between Shiites and Sunnis?

GARRELS: Well, in one case they said they went into a contested area of Baghdad, pretended they were Sunnis, raped a Shiite girl. They then went to the Sadr organization and said look what Sunnis did to an innocent Shiite girl, and the result were stepped-up attacks on Sunnis. These young men also said they killed local Sadr militia leaders in order to gain control of certain areas.

And they also say they use American troops to further their ends by calling in with tips about so-called bad Sadrists, so the Americans will take them out. Now, once again, they said they're doing this for money on orders of Iranian agents working out of Badrawajasan(ph) on the Iraq-Iran border. They said their mission was to create an unstable Iraq.

INSKEEP: So if even Sadr's people say that they have in some sense been infiltrated and influenced by Iran, where does that leave Moqtada al-Sadr?

GARRELS: Well, the consensus is that he's still strong, but he's strong because while there may be growing disillusionment with him, disillusionment among the poor with other political parties running what is perceived to be an ineffective corrupt government is even greater.

INSKEEP: NPR's Anne Garrels is in Baghdad.

Anne, thanks very much.

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