U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld has warned Iran not to try to increase its influence in southern Iraq beyond what local people will tolerate. The warning came one day after tension in the main southern Iraqi city, Basra, caused a riot and a clash between British and Iraqi forces.
Secretary Rumsfeld was asked about increased tension in Basra in recent months. Two journalists have been killed in the area, and on Monday Iraqi security forces and civilians clashed with British troops from the U.S.-led coalition.
A reporter asked Secretary Rumsfeld whether he believes the increased tension in what had been one of the most peaceful parts of Iraq is the result of increased Iranian activity in the area.
"Iran has been busy in southern Iraq for years and years and years," he said. "They've sent pilgrims back and forth across that border into those Shi'ite holy sites on a regular basis. The borders are porous. Is it greater today than yesterday? I don't know, but you can be sure that the playing field is not even there. They're interested, they're involved and they're active. And it's not helpful. You know, you can overplay your hand."
Secretary Rumsfeld said he believes Iraqi Shi'ite Muslims in the south are more loyal to Iraq than they are to Iran's Shi'ite religious leaders.
The secretary declined to comment directly on Monday's incident, in which British forces knocked down a wall of an Iraqi jail while searching for two undercover soldiers who had been detained. The soldiers were not there, but were freed a short time later from a private home in the area. The soldiers had allegedly killed an Iraqi, sparking riots in which two more Iraqis died. Iraq has called the incident "unfortunate." Britain's commander in the region says he believed his men were in danger, and Britain's defense minister said the decision to use force to free the men was "absolutely right," because local officials refused to release them in spite of an order from Baghdad.