Britain, Iran playing with Iraqi Shi'ite
By Mahan Abedin
Recent deadly attacks against British forces in southern Iraq and the seizure
of two undercover British Special Air Service (SAS) agents in Basra, followed
quickly by their dramatic rescue, have highlighted the superficiality of
security and stability in the Iraqi south. They have also led to intense
speculation as to the causes of the recent troubles in a region hitherto
trumpeted as comparatively safe and secure.
The British media, following subtle prompts by the British security
establishment, has tended to apportion some of the blame for the recent upsurge
in violence - particularly the increasingly sophisticated nature of roadside
bombings - on Iran. This is, at best, misleading. The events in southern Iraq
are essentially driven by internal Iraqi dynamics, and British high-handedness
dealing with Iraqi Shi'ites is not helping matters.
The British in Iraq
The British military has been careful to cultivate a benign image around its
substantial presence in the southern regions of Iraq. Retired military
officers, who act as unofficial public relations agents of the United Kingdom
military, regularly appear in the media and often contrast the behavior of
British forces to the more trigger-happy Americans, and swiftly conclude that
the British - on account of their experience in Northern Ireland and elsewhere
- are simply better at this type of thing than their American cousins.
This is, at best, a half-truth. While there is no denying the professionalism
and historical experience of the British military, they have been guilty of
serious crimes and abuses in Iraq. In any case, if the British forces were
stationed in the central, western and central-northern regions of Iraq, there
could be little doubt that they would be suffering casualty rates equal to or
exceeding those currently sustained by the US military.
The British policy of granting substantial autonomy and freedom of action to
Shi'ite political parties and their militias has been less driven by
benevolence and careful planning than by a lack of troops on the ground.
The British military presence in southern Iraq - although substantial - is
still nowhere near enough to ensure security over the vast regions where they
operate. Given this limited capability, it made sense to delegate various
security tasks to the militias, mainly the Badr Organization (previously Badr
Brigade) of the Supreme Council of the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI) and
the various militias belonging to Muqtada al-Sadr's movement and its offshoots.
Given the numerical strength of these militias and the political and
socio-economic influence wielded by their mother organizations, it was no great
surprise that they managed to heavily penetrate newly established police and
security structures in southern Iraq. Recent attempts by the British to reverse
this process have led to tension, which may be a factor behind the targeting of
A much more worrying factor for the Iraqi Shi'ite organizations is intense
British intelligence activities all over Iraq, but particularly in the south.
The fear is that the British are planning a long-term intelligence presence in
Iraq, which would long outlast their military presence in the country.
These fears are not without basis, as every civilian and military agency of the
British secret state has a presence in Iraq. These include the Secret
Intelligence Service (better known as MI6), GCHQ (the electronic surveillance
arm of the British intelligence), the Army Intelligence Corps and elements of
the revamped Force Research Unit (an ultra-secret branch of British military
intelligence, which gained notoriety for its abuses in Northern Ireland).
Even the British domestic security service (MI5) and the Metropolitan police
Special Branch maintain a presence in Iraq. Given the breadth and depth of this
intelligence presence, it is not altogether surprising that the Iraqi Shi'ites
are fast losing confidence in the British. This is compounded by their
historical experience with the British, who favored the Arab Sunnis over the
Shi'ites in the 1920s, thus setting in train the complex dynamics that
culminated in the rise of Arab nationalists and Saddam Hussein. Interestingly,
the Shi'ites still maintain confidence in the Americans, believing that the
Americans are committed to irreversibly altering the balance of power in Iraq
and the wider region in favor of the Shi'ites.
Yet another sticking point has been the British determination to thwart Iranian
influence in southern Iraq. While the Americans have been busy fighting the
Arab Sunni insurgents who are ripping Iraq apart, the British have dedicated
significant resources to countering Iranian intelligence operations and other
activities in the Shi'ite south.
One particular method that has been causing much ill-feeling has been direct
approaches by the British (usually involving two UK intelligence officers
surrounded by ordinary soldiers) to people who maintain contact with Iranian
agents and those who regularly travel to Iran.
The Iraqis in question are subjected to a long diatribe about the "black heart"
of Iranian intelligence and strongly advised to cease their contact with the
Iranians. While ordinary Iraqis are baffled by this type of approach (and often
remind the British that it is they who occupy Iraq, not the Iranians), the
Shi'ite political organizations are extremely offended. After all, it was Iran
that gave them shelter and support during the dark years of the Saddam regime,
while the British had given free reign to the former Iraqi intelligence
services to terrorize Iraqi dissidents in the UK in the 1980s.
British meddling in Iran?
From an Iranian perspective, the British military presence in southern Iraq is
psychologically unsettling. Aside from bitter historical experience, the
Iranians fear that the British (who are the effective rulers of southern Iraq)
may mimic the behavior of the former Iraqi regime and conduct extensive
intelligence and sabotage operations in Iran's oil-rich Khuzestan province. It
is not altogether surprising therefore that some circles in the Iranian
government and semi-official hardline pressure groups blamed the British for
the riots and bombings that rocked Khuzestan this late spring.
Many of these accusations against the British can be reduced to irrational
Iranian fears of British omnipotence and hostile intentions toward Iran.
Certainly the Iranians have not produced any hard evidence pointing to British
involvement, and moreover it is difficult to see why the British would want to
destabilize Khuzestan, when that instability could have a negative impact on
conditions in the extreme Iraqi south.
At the same time, there is little doubt that the British have, for the first
time since the 1979 Islamic revolution in Iran, established an intelligence
foothold in that country. This would not have been possible without the British
military presence in Iraq. While much of the British intelligence activity in
Khuzestan is directed against Iranian intelligence and influence operations in
Iraq, the same intelligence resources can be directed against Iranian national
security inside Iran.
Britain and the Iraqi Shi'ites
In an interview with the Baztab news website (which is managed by former
officers in the political-ideological department of the Islamic Revolutionary
Guards Corps, and widely regarded as the best-quality Persian language news
site) a "senior" Iraqi Shi'ite political figure claimed that in the event of
Britain not correcting its hostile stance toward Iraqi Shi'ites, the "200-year"
rage of Iraqi Shi'ites against British imperialism would explode, sending
"hundreds" of British soldiers and officers to their deaths.
Alluding to the capture of the two undercover SAS men, the "senior" Iraqi
figure claimed the Shi'ites had thwarted an extensive British conspiracy around
Basra. Moreover, the Iraqi figure claimed that the Shi'ites did not care for
British designs in Iraq and warned that the decision of the Shi'ites not to
attack the occupiers over the past 30 months could be easily reversed.
Furthermore, cleverly alluding to the unpopularity of the Iraq war in Britain,
the Iraqi Shi'ite figure claimed that major assaults against the British forces
would topple Prime Minister Tony Blair.
While much of this can be dismissed as rhetoric and puffery, statements such as
this should nonetheless force people to question their assumptions about the
Iraqi Shi'ites. It is interesting to note that the Arab Sunni insurgents,
al-Qaeda, the Arab regimes in the Middle East and the Anglo-American coalition
have (at different times and to varying degrees) all painted the Iraqi Shi'ites
as a poor and helpless people with an intense historical inferiority complex.
The Arab regimes (particularly those of Saudi Arabia and Jordan) seem to be
confident that the historical oppression of the Iraqi Shi'ites has been so
deeply internalized in their collective psyche that they are simply incapable
of translating their numerical majority into real political and socio-economic
A brief glance at recent history would thoroughly demolish such myths. Iraqi
Shi'ites were at the forefront of the struggle against Saddam and it was the
Shi'ite al-Da'awa Party that introduced multiple suicide bombings to the world.
In particular it was a rogue Da'awa cell that attacked the Iraqi Embassy in
Beirut in December 1981, killing 27 people, thus claiming the first major
suicide bombing of the 20th century in the name of Iraq's oppressed Shi'ite
majority. If this type of wrath were to be unleashed against the British and
American forces inside Iraq, there is little doubt that Washington's
ever-shrinking ambitions for Iraq and its own interests in the region would be
seriously imperiled, if not sunk altogether.
The Iraqi Shi'ites certainly have the potential to create as much if not more
instability than the Arab Sunni guerrillas, and given this potentiality the
British have a responsibility to prevent the tense situation in southern Iraq
from deteriorating even further. High-handedness and a thinly veiled belief in
their moral superiority was a major factor in the collapse of the British
Empire. The real concern is that in occupied Iraq, these tactics and attitudes
will not only deepen instability, but might even reverse some of the gains
achieved by the downfall of Saddam.
More broadly, the UK and Iran can work together to prevent serious instability
in the Shi'ite south. The secret intelligence war between the two sides in Iraq
is currently manageable. Whether it remains that way depends, to a large
extent, on how Britain manages its relations with Iran over a number of issues,
in particular the brewing crisis over Iran's nuclear program. Should the UK
adopt an increasingly hawkish stance over this issue, Iran will have little
incentive to secure the Anglo-American enterprise in Iraq.
Mahan Abedin is the editor of Terrorism Monitor, which is published by
the Jamestown Foundation, a non-profit organization specializing in research
and analysis on conflict and instability in Eurasia. The views expressed here
are his own.