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Iranian-backed forces cross into Iraq

By Najmeh Bozorgmehr in Tehran and Guy Dinmore in Washington

Published: February 18 2003 21:48 | Last Updated: February 19 2003 1:43

Iranian-backed Iraqi opposition forces have crossed into northern Iraq from Iran with the aim of securing the frontier in the event of war, according to senior Iranian officials.

The forces, numbering up to 5,000 troops, with some heavy equipment, are nominally under the command of Ayatollah Mohammad Baqir al-Hakim, a prominent Iraqi Shia Muslim opposition leader who has been based in Iran since 1980 and lives in Tehran.

A US State Department official said he was aware of reports that part of Ayatollah Hakim's Badr brigade had crossed into northern Iraq but declined further comment. Analysts close to the administration of President George W. Bush said the US was concerned about the intentions of this new element in an increasingly complicated patchwork of forces in northern Iraq.

Turkey has long had a limited military presence in northern Iraq, and US special forces began moving into the region several months ago. The Badr brigade has been trained and equipped by Iran's Revolutionary Guards and could be regarded as a proxy force of the Iranian government.

Iranian officials insist that force's role in the north is defensive but its presence will exacerbate the concerns of the US and especially the Arab world that military intervention in Iraq will lead to a permanent disintegration of the country. Through inserting a proxy force, Iran is underlining that it cannot be ignored in future discussions over Iraq's make-up.

Ayatollah Hakim's forces had previously been based in southern Iran, close to Iraq. Two months ago they began moving into the area of northern Iraq governed by the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), one of two Kurdish parties that rule an area the size of Switzerland outside Baghdad's control.

A senior Iranian official, who asked not to be named, said the presence of Ayatollah Hakim's troops was defensive and aimed at countering a possible attack on Iran by the People's Mujahideen Organisation (MKO), an Iranian opposition group based in Iraq and strongly supported by President Saddam Hussein.

Another official said the Badr force had moved into an area near Darbandikhan, a depopulated and rugged stretch of hills and ravines about 15 miles from the closest point on the Iranian border.

The MKO used Iraqi territory to mount attacks on Iran during the 1980-88 war between Iran and Iraq. The Kurdish parties controlling northern Iraq have also expressed fears that Mr Hussein would try to use the MKO against them in the event of a US-led invasion of Iraq.

Ayatollah Hakim is the head of the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq (Sciri), a mainly Shia Muslim group that fought in the failed 1991 uprising against Baghdad in southern Iraq. More recently Sciri has taken part in talks between the Iraqi opposition and the US.

His office in Tehran denied that the Badr brigade had moved into northern Iraq but said Sciri had maintained forces in that region for several years, gathered from Iraqi Shia who had fled the Iraqi regime. A representative of the PUK also denied there had been a recent movement across the border but confirmed a presence of Sciri forces

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