x Abu Dhabi, UAEFriday 28 July 2017

Iraq 'to let armed Iranian security teams guard Shiite pilgrims'

Controversial move to grant licences to Iranian security contractors to work in Iraq, protecting the hundreds of thousands of Iranians who visit Shiite shrines in Iraq every year, approved by Iraqi prime minister Nouri al Maliki, source tells The National.

Iranian pilgrims outside the shrine of Imam Ail in the holy Shiite city of Najaf, where firms from Iran will provide armed securuty guards.
Iranian pilgrims outside the shrine of Imam Ail in the holy Shiite city of Najaf, where firms from Iran will provide armed securuty guards.

BAGHDAD // Iraq will allow armed Iranian security teams to operate in the country, protecting pilgrims visiting holy sites from attacks, an ally of the prime minister says.

The source, a prominent Shiite politician closely aligned with the Iraqi leader, Nouri al Maliki, said the interior ministry had recently been instructed to issue operating permits to Iranian security contractors to work in the country. Western firms offering similar services have been working in Iraq for years.

"Iranian security companies will be able to get licences that allow small protection units to carry weapons and use armoured [SUV-style] vehicles inside Iraq to escort pilgrims and to protect them from al Qa'eda," the politician said. He spoke on condition of anonymity because of the sensitive nature of the subject. He said senior officials did not want the information made public.

"Iraq has a difficult history with contractors and a difficult history with Iran, so the government does not want this agreement to be advertised," he said.

It has not been possible to independently verify the claims. Government officials and MPs said they did not believe Mr al Maliki would give a green light to such a controversial measure at this time, warning that few, if any, Iraqis would support it.

Officials at the ministry of interior said they had not received any directives relating to Iranian security teams.

"There has been no communication from the prime minister's office on this subject, so we have no reason to think it is true. We know nothing about it," said one interior ministry official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorised to speak to the media. "I doubt Mr al Maliki would have taken any such decision; I can't imagine he would think there was any need for them [Iranian security teams] here."

On Tuesday, a local Iraqi newspaper quoted Abu Fadhil Mohammad Ali Khani, an Iranian official at Tehran's consulate in Najaf, confirming that licences had been granted. He said there had been an agreement between Baghdad and Tehran to allow private Iranian security firms to provide protection to Iranian pilgrims inside Iraq.

The Shiite Iraqi politician who disclosed the deal to The National said he had not been privy to all the details but was certain that Iranian private security teams could now, in principle at least, get operating licences. He said Mr al Maliki gave the project the go-ahead after he assumed his second term as prime minister at the end of last year. He did so in part as a way of ensuring the political and trade ties between Baghdad and Tehran remained strong.

Hundreds of thousands of Iranians visit Iraq each year as part of a highly lucrative religious tourism industry that Baghdad is keen to develop further. They have been targeted on numerous occasions by insurgent groups, which the authorities say are linked to al Qa'eda.

"I do not know all of the details of the arrangement and have no details of the timing or how many companies or people might be involved," the source said. "But Iranian security firms will be allowed to accompany Iranian pilgrims to give them security in Najaf, Kerbala and Samarra, and perhaps in some parts of Diyala where there are Shiite shrines," he said.

If true, the move would be highly contentious. The presence of US private security firms, such as Blackwater, which has been barred from working in Iraq and since rebranded itself as Xe to operate in Afghanistan, has long been controversial. A series of fatal shootings involving private contractors since the US-led invasion of 2003 led to their being widely viewed in Iraq as trigger-happy mercenaries.

With sectarian tensions still simmering, the arrival of Iranian security firms would not be welcomed by Iraqi nationalists who remember the eight-year war the two countries fought during the 1980s. In particular, hard-line Sunni factions have accused Mr al Maliki's Shiite-dominated government of being too closely allied with Tehran, and have resented the rise in Iranian influence over Iraq since Saddam Hussein was overthrown.

Iran has also been accused, both from inside Iraq and by the US, for playing a role in the insurgency that has raged since 2003. The Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps has repeatedly been accused of training Iraqi guerrillas to fight US troops and of supplying Shiite militants with explosives capable of penetrating the latest US armoured vehicles, allegations Tehran consistently denies.

Saadoun al Najafii, a private security consultant from Najaf, in southern Iraq, said bringing in armed teams from Iran to protect its tourists was not a new idea. Every day thousands of Iranian pilgrims flock to Najaf and Kerbala, two of the most important sites in Shia Islam, and the religious tourism industry is the backbone of the local economy.

"We have heard people talking of Iranian security coming here before and the likelihood of it happening will only have increased with the attacks by al Qa'eda on Shiite pilgrims," he said.

During Shiite religious festivals, Iraqi security forces are always on high alert. Despite the precautions, Sunni militants have been able to carry out deadly attacks on pilgrims and dozens of Iranian visitors have fallen as victims.

Haider al Abadi, an MP from Mr al Maliki's National Alliance coalition, insisted that armed Iranian forces would not be allowed to work in Iraq, and said Baghdad's own forces would provide security.

"The prime minister has been working hard to ensure that Iraqi forces are strong and capable and trusted by the people," he said. "I don't think he [Mr al Maliki] wants any foreign security firms working here, Iranian or from other places. All of these firms have a bad reputation in Iraq."

Mr al Abadi also said it "made no sense" for Iraq to issue permits to armed Iranian contractors just as US forces were pulling back. US troops are scheduled to leave the country entirely by the end of the year under a "status of forces agreement" between Washington and Baghdad.

"We are working to end foreign interference in Iraq by the end of the year, so why would we make a deal with Iranian security firms?" he said.

A leading Kurdish MP, Mahmoud Othman, said the Iraqi people would refuse to accept Iranian security teams operating on their soil.

"This would create new problems," he said. "In the past the security situation was bad and these firms were needed in some cases for protection, but that is not the situation now. If these companies do turn up, it will be a step backwards. It is the job of the Iraqi security forces to provide protection to people here."

nlatif@thenational.ae