Iran's Shi'ites Get Access to Iraq; Strong Cross-Border Links Evident

The Washington Times (Washington, DC), February 14, 2007 | Go to article overview

Iran's Shi'ites Get Access to Iraq; Strong Cross-Border Links Evident


Byline: THE WASHINGTON TIMES

PAVEH, Iran - If Hajj Ali, a man in his 70s, was relieved to be going home after his pilgrimage to Karbala in Iraq, southwest of Baghdad, he did not show it. The devout Shi'ite from Tehran had just made his third pilgrimage to Karbala since the overthrow of Iraq's late President Saddam Hussein in 2003 reopened Iraq to Shi'ite pilgrims.

Entering Iraq through the central Mehran border crossing, Mr. Ali traveled alone or with other pilgrims through war-wracked southern Iraq. He used shared local transport and paid for goods in Iranian tomans rather than Iraqi dinars.

The classic Koranic Arabic he knew differed so much from the regional dialects that Mr. Ali switched to Farsi when communicating with Iraqis. He said about half the Iraqis he met in the mainly Shi'ite south were fluent Persian speakers because they had lived in Iran or had business dealings there.

"Up to half the Iraqis we met in the south spoke Farsi and accepted Iranian tomans as money," he said. "While we were there, a lot of Sunni terrorists were arrested and the Americans said that any Iranians found in Iraq would be killed. Imagine that!"

Throughout his five-week trip, the only time Mr. Ali entered Sunni ground was when he was back in Iran and crossing Sunni Kurdish territories of western Iran. The mountainous region had long been neglected before the 1979 Iranian Revolution led by the late Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini.

One of the main grievances behind the Kurdish uprising against the Tehran government in 1980 was that the shah had not offered Kurds the development projects he built in the rest of the country. Their rebellion was suppressed and they continued being ignored.

Though the region is visually stunning, Kurdistan's restive Sunni Muslim Kurdish inhabitants and location near civil-war torn Iraq dictate its isolation. Visiting during Ashura Shi'ite Islam's commemoration of the slaying of the prophet Muhammad's grandson, Imam Hussein, by his political opponents Mr. Ali encountered none of the black shrouds of mourning and self-flagellating crowds that filled most of Iran's other cities.

It is a time when the struggle for their own state by Iraq's already autonomous Kurds gives inspiration to Kurds in neighboring countries.

In the region, a simmering Sunni-Shi'ite enmity has turned into a covert war. Consequently, it is not surprising that Iranian Kurdistan's Sunni Kurds inhabit one of the least developed parts of the country and are politically unrepresented in Tehran.

Shi'ites favored

"If there was a Shi'ite shrine here, the government would have built a huge mosque on its site and paved all roads leading to it," said Abu Bakr, the driver of an old Nissan flatbed truck, as he negotiated the snowed-in mountain paths connecting far-flung mountain villages.

In Paveh, the biggest city in the region, Tehran makes its presence felt with armed guards standing sentry at the police station, built atop a hill close to the center of town.

Most public signs are in Persian, and Shi'ite imagery and names are given to schools and hospitals with predominantly Sunni pupils and patients. Many of the Revolutionary Guards protecting the frontier from smuggling between Iran and Iraq come from Iran's Persian minority or the large Turkish minority that forms the backbone of Iran's business establishment.

"Guerrillas from the Komala banned anti-Islamic Republic Kurdish secessionist groups would throw stones at our sentries at night to bait them out in order to shoot at them," said a Kurdish soldier who served in Paveh in the early 1990s, bringing water to border outposts.

Sacked for selling water

He was removed from duty when his superiors discovered that he had been selling water to villagers who lacked piped water. Many politically active Kurds must lie low or flee across the border to Iraq.

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