Neo-Ba’athists vs. the Shi’ites

Brig. Gen. Muhammad Abdullah Shahwani, the head of the Iraqi secret police, has charged 27 employees in the Iranian embassy in Baghdad with espionage and sabotage. He blames them for the assassination of over a dozen members of the Iraqi secret police in the past month. He claims to have seized from “safehouses” Persian documents that show that the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI) and its militia, the Badr Corps, served as Iranian agents in helping with the assassinations.

SCIRI is represented in the caretaker government by Adil Abdul Mahdi, the finance minister, and the party has been an ally of convenience of the U.S. against the Sadr Movement. The party was formed in Tehran by Iraqi exiles in 1982 and was close to Iranian hardliners. SCIRI officials vigorously denied Shahwani’s charges on Thursday. They said that the neo-Ba’ath network in the Allawi government is seeking to discredit Iraqis who fought against Saddam from Iran in the 1980s.

SCIRI is close to Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, and there is some danger that if the neo-Ba’athists attack this Shi’ite party they will push Sistani into opposition to the government. Indeed, insofar as most of the neo-Ba’athists are Sunnis, this sort of campaign could finally produce the kind of Sunni-Shi’ite violence many feared before the war, but which has largely so far been avoided.

Shahwani’s allegations are disturbing, coming when they do, because they may be an attempt to damage SCIRI’s prospects in the January elections. If the secret police are manipulating documents to tie a major Iraqi party to foreign intrigue and domestic assassination, this move would bode badly for Iraq’s development as a democracy.

Personally, I find Shahwani’s allegations fantastic.

It was clear as soon as Allawi and the neo-Ba’ath faction were put in power by the U.S. in late June that they wanted to target Iran. Defense Minister Hazim Shaalan decried Iran publicly as Iraq’s number one enemy this summer.

Shahwani is an old-time Ba’ath officer. In 1990 he broke with Saddam, who is said to have killed three of Shahwani’s children in revenge. Shahwani came out of Iraq and joined U.S. efforts to overthrow the dictator. This summer, he was appointed head of the Mukhabarat or Iraqi secret police, which the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency is rebuilding with $3 billion. Shahwani is alleged to be a longtime CIA asset who is being groomed as a replacement for caretaker Prime Minister Iyad Allawi should the latter be assassinated.

Shahwani is part of a network of ex-Ba’athists (or perhaps neo-Ba’athists) around Iyad Allawi, including Interior Minister Falah al-Naqib and Defense Minister Hazim Shaalan. As Ed Wong and Erik Eckholm of the New York Times recently reported, the Allawi government has been bringing large numbers of former Ba’athists into the government. This step reverses the extreme de-Ba’athification measures implemented at the behest of Ahmad Chalabi begining in June 2003.

On Sept. 21, al-Sabah reported that Judge Zuhair al-Maliky had opened an investigation into Interior Minister Falah al-Naqib and the head of the Iraqi secret police, Muhammad al-Shahwani, for their harassment of members of the Hizbollah Movement of Iraq headed by Hassan al-Sari in Baghdad. Sari’s HMI was established in the early 1980s, and is very close to the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq. (Later on the “Iraqi Hizbollah” hived off from it to organize the Marsh Arabs displaced by Saddam from the south headed by Abu Hatem al-Muhammadawi. The HMI remained separate. Neither the Hizbollah Movement of Iraq nor the Iraqi Hizbollah is related to the Lebanese organization of the same name, which Western news sources inexplicably transliterate in Persian as Hezbollah). The two ex-Ba’ath officials had reportedly ordered the secret police to raid “the office of Hizb Allah Movement in Baghdad and arrested some members, including the movement’s General-Secretary Hassan Al Sari, without any arrest warrant.” (Thanks to Nicholas Blanford for information about HMI.)

Complaints began surfacing about Shahwani in August. Iraqi Shi’ite leaders visiting London this summer contacted the Deccan Herald, a south Indian newspaper, among others, to express concern about the secret police chief:

“Despite earlier promises that no one in Iraq would be arrested without due process, Shahwani’s critics say he is using ex-criminals to round up suspects and hold them without charge in secret prisons.

“‘On the day the National Assembly was appointed three members were arrested, along with another 57 others, all this on the orders of Shahwani,’ one prominent Iraqi visitor told Deccan Herald on condition he was not quoted by name.

“When we heard of this we approached Prime Minister Allawi and they managed to get one man released. All the others remain under arrest.

“Shahwani only responds to the orders of the Americans, he was forced on Allawi. That’s why this is occupation, you can draw your conclusions.”‘

Hyderabad, in south India, was ruled by the Golconda Shi’ite state in the 1500s and 1600s and has an old Shi’ite community that is connected to the Gulf through immigration and study. Presumably it is this Hyderabad connection that explains why the Iraqi Shi’ites complained to the Deccan Herald in particular about Shahwani.