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    Middle East
     Jul 20, 2010
Iran blames US for mosque attack
By Jim Lobe

WASHINGTON - Both United States President Barack Obama and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton have denounced last week's suicide bomb attacks on a Shi'ite mosque in Sistan and Balochistan province in southeastern Iran by a Sunni extremist group that Tehran charges is being supported by Washington.

"I strongly condemn the outrageous terrorist attacks on a mosque in southeast Iran," Obama said in a statement released by the White House. "The murder of innocent civilians in their place of worship is an intolerable offence, and those who carried it out must be held accountable."

In a separate statement, Clinton condemned the attacks "in the strongest possible terms" and suggested that Jundallah, the group that claimed responsibility, may be added to the State


Department's terrorism list. "This attack, along with the recent attacks in Uganda, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iraq, and Algeria, underscores the global community's need to work together to combat terrorist organizations that threaten the lives of innocent civilians around the world," according to the statement, which cited Jundallah by name.

The double bombings - the latest in a series of bloody attacks claimed by Jundallah over the past several years - reportedly killed at least 30 people at a mosque in the city of Zahedan, including several officers of the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps (IRGC), a favorite target of the group.

Nearly 300 others were injured by the blasts, which took place during evening prayers marking the birthday of the Prophet Mohammad's grandson, Imam Hussein. The first bombing, which took place at the mosque's entrance, was followed 15 minutes later by the second, as people gathered to help the wounded.

In taking credit for the bombings, Jundallah, which also calls itself the Iranian People's Resistance Movement, said they were carried out in retaliation for last month's execution of the group's leader, Abdulmalik Rigi. His brother, Abdulhamid Rigi, was hung in May after he was captured in Pakistan in 2008 and subsequently returned to Iran.

"This operation is a response to incessant crimes of the regime in Balochistan," the group said on its website. "The two young martyrs sacrificed their lives and shattered the dreams of executioners and devils."

A senior IRGC officer, General Hossein Salami, charged in Tehran that the United States and Britain were supporting Jundallah and bore responsibility for the attacks. He said the victims "were martyred by the hands of mercenaries of the US and UK". Other officials also accused Israel of being behind the attacks.

United States officials have long denied Washington supports the group, which claims it is fighting for autonomy in Balochistan and for equal rights for Sunnis, who make up roughly 10% of Iran's total population, but are a majority in the province.

To some analysts, US denials are unconvincing, particularly because Jundallah - despite taking responsibility for a number of terrorist attacks that claimed scores of victims - has never been placed on the State Department's list of terrorist groups.

That stands in contrast to two other armed rebel groups: the Iraq-based Mujahideen-e Khalq (MeK), which was declared a terrorist organization by the Bill Clinton administration in 1997; and the Free Life Party of Kurdistan (PJAK), which was listed in February 2009, shortly after Obama took office in what was widely interpreted as an initial goodwill gesture by the new president toward the Islamic Republic.

"We understand that, last year, the Obama administration reviewed whether Jundallah should be designated a foreign terrorist organization, but decided not to do so," noted Flynt and Hillary Mann Leverett, in their blog, www.raceforiran.com, earlier this year. "Why was that?"

"Could it be that at least some elements of the Obama administration believe that US connections to groups like Jundallah are potentially useful policy instruments vis-a-vis the Islamic Republic," the couple, who served in key Iran-related posts under Clinton and George W Bush, asked, adding that Jundallah's attacks had had a "corrosive" effect on Obama's efforts to engage Tehran.

Three years ago, ABC News, quoting US and Pakistani intelligence sources, reported that Jundallah, which was created in 2002 and carried out its first attacks three years later, had been "secretly encouraged and advised by" US officials since 2005.

At the time, the Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) denied that it provided any direct funding to the group, but some independent analysts have suggested that the agency may be providing indirect support, possibly through Pakistan's Inter-Services Intelligence, which has extensive operations along the Balochistan border; and through Saudi Arabia, Iran's major geopolitical rival in the region since the 2003 US invasion of Iraq.

"The Saudis have a hand in every Sunni resistance group in the region," said Philip Giraldi, a former CIA officer in the clandestine service. "They're definitely players and may well be involved independently of the US." At the same time, he didn't exclude US involvement. "I've heard a number of times that special operations people and the CIA have been in regular contact with [Jundallah]," he told Inter Press Service (IPS), adding, however: "I don't have any solid evidence."

Colonel Patrick Lang (retired), a top Middle East and South Asia analyst in the Defense Intelligence Agency from the 1990s until the George W Bush administration, said he would be "very surprised" if Washington had provided direct support to "groups that blow up mosques", as Jundallah has done before last week's bombings.

There was "some chance", he said, that Washington was providing "indirect support" for the group, adding that he knew of no concrete evidence.

The Leveretts and other analysts have said that listing Jundallah as a terrorist organization would constitute evidence that Washington was indeed distancing itself from the group.

The State Department, however, dodged the question Friday, telling IPS that "We cannot comment on prospective terrorist designations. Doing so would jeopardize the practical impact of designations by giving organizations the ability to move assets prior to designation."

In addition, neither Obama nor Clinton extended condolences to the Iranian government, confining them instead to the victims and the general population. "The United States stands with the families and loved ones of those killed and injured, and with the Iranian people, in the face of this injustice," Obama said.

State Department spokesman Philip Crowley, however, noted that the US was "seeking cooperation from all countries around the world [in combating terrorism], including Iran, which is a state sponsor of terrorism itself."

Some neo-conservatives and right-wing pro-Israel groups have called from time to time for Washington to support Iranian rebel groups, including the MeK and PJAK. The Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs, which is closely linked to the Israel's Likud Party, wrote sympathetically about Jundallah and the Rigi brothers, in particular. "It is unnecessary to know anything about the Jundallah organization to understand that the Iranian regime is secretly executing its enemies and is reaping the revenge," it said.

(Inter Press Service)

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