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Army of Iraqi Shiites Shifts to Aid Work

June 16, 2003

BAGHDAD, Iraq (AP) _ Trained to drive tanks and launch rockets, Hussein Ali al-Bahar fought Saddam Hussein for more than two decades as a warrior in the Badr Corps, an army of Iraqi Shiite exiles backed by Iran.

But now Saddam is gone, and al-Bahar’s bosses have found him a more sedate line of work: handing out free food in Baghdad’s slums.

``During Saddam we were forced to fight,″ said the 41-year-old, working at a food distribution center in Sadr City, a poor section of west Baghdad. ``Now he’s gone, and we have to find other ways of helping our people.″

The Badr Corps, the military wing of the Supreme Council of the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, or SCIRI, is being reborn. Ordered to disarm by Iraq’s U.S.-led occupation force, corps says it has begun remaking its 10,000-man militia into a humanitarian organization.

But the United States suspects SCIRI, long financed and armed by Tehran, is a front for Iran and its theocratic, anti-American agenda. Washington, which broke ties with Iran during the 1980 hostage crisis and now accuses it of harboring terrorists and pursuing a nuclear weapons program, worries the Iraqi group will try to import Iranian-style militant Shiism into Iraq.

And while the occupation authorities meet regularly with SCIRI officials, and regard it as an important part of the emerging Iraqi political world, they’re not convinced the Badr Corps has given up all its weapons.

``They are one of the many political groups we are engaging with,″ said Naheed Mehta, a spokeswoman for the U.S.-led Coalition Provisional Authority. ``We have made clear to them all that armed militias such as the Badr Corps are unacceptable.″

Despite such misgivings, SCIRI does not cut itself off from non-Shiite groups. It maintains good relations with political organizations like the Iraqi National Congress, long a Pentagon favorite in the anti-Saddam exile community, and the two main Kurdish parties.

Instead, much of group’s political energy is focused on battling other emerging Iraqi Shiite parties.

SCIRI, which is led by Ayatollah Mohammad Baqr al-Hakim, a member of a prominent clergy family, appears to have significant support among broad swaths of Iraq’s Shiite majority. But it is just one of many Shiite groups _ many of which regularly rip into one another in competing newspapers, and try to smear each other with whisper campaigns.

Recently, a threatening note was sent to a female Iraqi United Nations’ employee, warning that she and her daughters had to wear conservative Islamic attire or face violence. The crude note, signed by the ``Badr Army,″ was a forgery, said el Khafafi.

The group’s current ties to Iran are unclear. Some Iraqi politicians and Middle East observers believe SCIRI may have begun to break away from Iran, now that it has been able to leave its Iranian bases for Iraq.

But few question Iran’s control over the group during its first two decades. Tehran, which fought a bloody eight-year war with Iraq in the 1980s, promoted SCIRI as an Iraqi government-in-exile. In addition, Iran’s conservative Revolutionary Guards controlled the Badr Brigade’s military activities for years, said Bill Samii, a Prague-based analyst for Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty.

With Iranian help, Badr soldiers battled Iraqi troops in military assaults, assassinated Baathist officials and bombed buildings.

The shift from militia to charity work is a natural step for the Badr, which would be following in the footsteps of many other militant Muslim groups _ including Hezbollah in southern Lebanon _ that have tried to establish their credibility and build support with humanitarian aid.

In the Sadr City warehouse, one of three the group has in Baghdad, sacks of rice and flour, cans of tomato sauce and soup, cartons of milk and juice are stacked. Almost all the food is donated by Iran, said al-Bahar.

Down the street, dozens of patients lined up at a SCIRI clinic, one of two it has in the neighborhood. A doctor the Korean charity Good Neighbors, working alongside one from SCIRI, sees nearly 100 patients each day.

Han Jae Hyung, a Good Neighbors spokesman, said his group was squeamish about working with a political organization as controversial as SCIRI, but there are few other outlets for relief supplies and volunteers.

``There’s no hospital in this area and there’s very poor health coverage. This is the only group that’s doing something about it,″ he said.

While SCIRI insists it’s expanding its aid operations, officials say they don’t know how many clinics and food distribution centers have been set up, since local officials are responsible for their own areas.

But SCIRI’s 10,000 warriors have orders to leave their heavy weapons in Iran and return to help in Iraq’s political and physical reconstruction, said Ahmad Ali el Khafafi, a former Badr military commander turned political operative.

``We fought Saddam for 20 years and gave up thousands of martyrs,″ said el Khafafi, who today is armed only with a satellite telephone. ``Now our role is propaganda and rebuilding.″