TIME INVESTIGATION INTO IRANIAN INFLUENCE IN IRAQ Documents: Plan for Gaining Influence in Iraq Began Before U.S. Invaded

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New York – According to a U.S. military intelligence document obtained by TIME, Iran is backing a man in Iraq named Abu Mustafa al-Sheibani and his network of insurgents as they commit violence against U.S. and coalition forces in Iraq. Over the past eight months, his group has introduced a new breed of roadside bomb more lethal than any seen before; based on a design from the Iranian-backed Lebanese militia Hizballah, the weapon employs “shaped” explosive charges that can punch through a battle tank’s armor like a fist through the wall. According to the document, the U.S. believes al-Sheibani’s team consists of 280 members, divided into 17 bombmaking teams and death squads.

An in-depth TIME investigation, based on documents smuggled out of Iran and dozens of interviews with U.S., British and Iraqi intelligence officials, as well as an Iranian agent, armed dissidents and Iraqi militia and political allies, reveals an Iranian plan for gaining influence in Iraq that began before the U.S. invaded. In their scope and ambition, Iran’s activities rival those of the U.S. and its allies, especially in the south, TIME’s Michael Ware reports.

Coalition sources told TIME that it was one of al-Sheibani’s devices that killed three British soldiers in Amarah last month. “One suspects this would have to have a higher degree of approval (in Tehran),” says a senior U.S. military official in Baghdad. The official says the U.S. believes that Iran has brokered a partnership between Iraqi Shi‘ite militants and Hizballah and facilitated the import of sophisticated weapons that killing and wounding U.S. and British troops.

TIME has obtained copies of what U.S. and British military intelligence say appears to be Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps intelligence reports sent in April 2003. One, dated April 10 and marked CONFIDENTIAL, logs U.S. troops backed by armor moving through the city of Kut. But, it asserts, “we are in control of the city.” Another, with the same date, from a unit code-named 1546, claims “forces attached to us” had control of the city of Amarah and had occupied Baath Party properties. A 2004 British army inquiry noted that the Badr organization and another militia were so powerful in Amarah, “it quickly became clear that the coalition needed to work with them to ensure a secure environment in the province.”

TIME/Iranian Influence in Iraq

Military officials say they believe Iranian-funded militias helped organize a mob attack in the southern township of Majarr al-Kabir on June 24, 2003, that resulted in the execution of six British military-police officers. According to a classified British military-intelligence document, a local militia leader is “implicated in the murder of the 6 RMP (Royal Military Police).”

Documents from Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps files obtained by TIME include voluminous pay records from August 2004 that appear to indicate that Iran was paying the salaries of at least 11,740 members of the Badr Corps. British and U.S. military intelligence suspect those salaries are still being paid, although Badr leader Hadi al-Amri denies that. “I’ve told the American officers to bring us the evidence that we have a deal with Iran, and we will be ready, but they say they don’t have any,” he says.

Abu Hassan, a former Iraqi official and member of Saddam’s armored corps, told TIME last summer that he was recruited by an Iranian intelligence agent in 2004 to compile the names and addresses of Ministry of Interior officials in close contact with American military officers and liaisons. Abu Hassan’s Iranian handler wanted to know “who the Americans trusted and where they were” and pestered him to find out if Abu Hassan, using his membership in the Iraqi National Accord political party, could get someone inside the office of then Prime Minister Iyad Allawi without being searched. (Allawi has told TIME he believes Iranian agents plotted to assassinate him.)

Western diplomats believe that information they give to the new Iraqi government is most likely shared with Tehran. “We have to think anything we tell or share with the Iraqi government ends up in Tehran,” says a Western diplomat.