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Last Updated:  Tuesday, 18 March, 2003, 12:04 GMT
Iran-backed rebels eye new Iraq role

By Jim Muir
BBC correspondent in Suleimanieh, Northern Iraq

Hundreds of guerrillas from an Iranian-backed Iraqi Islamic opposition faction have staged a military parade in northern Iraq, in an area controlled by the Iraqi Kurds, close to the border with Iran.

Badr Brigade on parade
Sciri are drawn from Iraq's Shia Muslim majority
The march-past, carried out in a remote hillside but with the international press invited, appeared to carry a significant message from the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (Sciri) and its Iranian supporters.

About 1,500 fighters from Sciri's Badr Brigade marched or drove in formation past a dais seating commanders and officials.

In addition to light weapons, they also displayed mortars, multiple rocket launchers and recoil-less rifles.

Sciri, drawn from Iraq's majority Shia Muslim community, has its headquarters in Tehran and the bulk of its estimated 15,000 troops are still believed to be in Iran, where they have been based for more than a decade.

'Clear message'

It was not clear whether the men on parade had crossed the border recently.

Badr Brigade on parade
The rebels do not intend to fight the regular Iraqi army

Sciri leaders claim they have forces on the ground in all parts of Iraq, and have said that to bring troops across the border would require Iran's assent.

Until recently, officials of the Kurdish faction which controls the area, the PUK, denied that there were significant numbers of Sciri fighters in their region.

Journalists who earlier tried to gain access to Sciri camps in the area were turned away.

So the staging of such a very public parade was a clear message that the group was declaring its presence loud and clear.

US officials have said they regard Sciri as an extension of Iran's Revolutionary Guards Corps, and that they would not welcome any role for them in the looming conflict.

But the Sciri military commander, Abdulaziz al-Hakim, came from Tehran with a different message for his men.

"You are the basic factor in changing the situation in Iraq," he told them.

"Your responsibility is great, and your readiness must be great, to save all the Iraqis and rid them (of Saddam Hussein). It is either victory, or martyrdom."

'Stabilising force'

But Sciri officials have made it clear they do not intend to throw their men into conventional battle against the Iraqi army - they will leave that to the Americans.

Badr Brigade on parade
Sciri leaders insist they are not pushing for an Iranian-style revolution

They apparently intend to assert themselves as a stabilising force in the aftermath - though some kind of "popular uprising" by opposition forces currently lying low in government-controlled areas is a possibility.

"We do not approve of an American attack," said Commander Safi, chief of staff of the Sciri force in northern Iraq.

"We only approve of preparing the necessary groundwork for the Iraqi people to carry out the regime change operation."

That presumably means Sciri would prefer the US and its coalition allies to carry out a bombing and missile campaign against regime targets, and leave it to underground opposition forces to finish the job.

'No deal' with US

Sciri is a significant player in the broader Iraqi opposition, and has taken part in opposition talks involving US officials in Washington last August, in London in December, and in the Kurdish-held town of Salahuddin at the end of February.

But Sciri officials make it clear that up until now, there has been no agreement on military co-ordination with the Americans.

"There's a difference between dialogue and co-ordination," said Abu Hussein al-Ameri, field commander in northern Iraq.

"The whole opposition says 'no' to invasion, 'no' to hegemony, 'no' to a US military governor. So far there's been no decision to co-operate with the Americans."

As well as being a signal that Sciri and its Iranian backers do not intend to be left out of the picture in a post-Saddam Iraq, the parade may also have carried the message that US forces should keep away from that sensitive border area adjacent to Iran.

The Sciri leader, Ayatollah Mohammad Baqer al-Hakim, is headquartered in Tehran.

Despite its name and its Iranian connections, the group insists that it is not pushing for an Iranian-style Islamist government in Iraq.

In his speech to the Badr Brigade troops in northern Iraq, commander Abdulaziz Hakim - the Ayatollah's brother - repeated Sciri's commitment to the Iraqi opposition's agreed vision of a democratic, pluralistic, federal government in Baghdad.

Democracy would give a much bigger say than at present to Iraq's Shia community - estimated at more than 60% of the population.

Although, it is by not means clear how many would espouse the line taken by Sciri and other Islamist groups such as the al-Daawa party.

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