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White House Opposes Iranian Interference With Iraq's Shiite Population

The Bush administration has warned Iran against sending agents into southern Iraq. A U.S. newspaper says Iranian-trained agents are already in southern Iraq promoting friendly relations with Shiite clerics.

White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said Iran should not try to influence the shape of Iraq's post-war government. "We have made clear to Iran that we would oppose any outside organization's interference in Iraq, interfering with their road to democracy. Infiltration of agents to destabilize the Shia population would clearly fall into that category," Mr. Fleischer said.

While he would not confirm reports that Iranian-trained agents are already working in southern Iraq, Mr. Fleischer says the administration is "concerned" about the issue and has made those concerns clear to Tehran through what he called "well known channels of communication" as the two countries have no diplomatic relations.

The New York Times reports that Iranian-trained agents are working with Shiite clerics in the Iraqi cities of Najaf, Basra, and Karbala. Citing unnamed U.S. officials, the newspaper says those agents include members of an Iranian-based Iraqi exile group known as the Badr Brigade as well as irregular members of Iran's elite military force, the Revolutionary Guards.

The Guards are loyal to Iran's Islamic hardliners who are also Shiite Muslims. Iraqi Shiites are sure to hold a greater share of power in a new government following the collapse of Saddam Hussein's Sunni-dominated administration.

The New York Times says U.S. officials are concerned that Tehran is trying to encourage an Iranian model of government in post-war Iraq which the Bush administration has said would not meet its requirements for a pluralistic, democratic administration in Baghdad.

While Iran and Iraq both have Shiite majorities, Mr. Fleischer warned against "over-interpreting" the ability of Iranian Shiites to influence events in Iraq. "There is no love lost between the Iraqi people and the Iranian people. The Iraqi Shiite community is a very capable community, a very large community and a very diverse community. And I think that any efforts by anybody outside of Iraq to try to create an outsider's version of what should take place for the Iraqi people by the Iraqi people will not have much chance of success," Mr. Fleischer said.

Asked to explain how Syrian and Iranian interests in Iraq differ from the president's goals, Mr. Fleischer said the U.S. invasion to topple Saddam Hussein was designed to create a pluralistic-democracy.

"The interests of Syria and the interests of Iran have not always proved to be the interests of peace or stability or freedom or democracy. And we have always said that one of the principles of the liberation and the government that would follow would be a government that is based not on an Iranian model or a Syrian model but based on a model of freedom, democracy, tolerance, openness, rule of law," he said.

Mr. Fleischer said the Bush administration would like to see a new government in Iraq similar to Turkey's where religious parties play a role in government alongside secular groups.