BASRA, Iraq – Southern Iraq, long touted as a peaceful region that’s likely to be among the first areas returned to Iraqi control, is now dominated by Shiite Muslim warlords and militiamen who are laying the groundwork for an Islamic fundamentalist government, say senior British and Iraqi officials in the area.
The militias appear to be supported by Iranian intelligence or military units that are shipping weapons to the militias in Iraq and providing training for them in Iran.
Some British officials believe the Iranians want to hasten the withdrawal of U.S.-backed coalition forces to pave the way for Iran-friendly clerical rule.
Iranian influence is evident throughout the area. In one government office, an aide approached a Knight Ridder reporter and, mistaking him for an Iranian, said, “Don’t be afraid to speak Farsi in Basra. We are a branch of Iran.”
“We get an idea that (military training) courses are being run” in Iran, said Lt. Col. David Labouchere, who commands British units in the province of Maysan, north of Basra. “People are training on the other side of the border and then coming back.”