LONDON, Feb. 19 (UPI) -- Some 5,000 troops backed with heavy equipment and under the command of a longtime Iraqi opposition leader have crossed from Iran into northern Iraq, it was reported Wednesday.
The Financial Times, in an article reported from Tehran and Washington, said the Badr brigade of Ayatollah Mohammad Baqir al Hakim, who has been based in Iran since 1980, moved into Iraq. Iranian officials told the newspaper the force was defensive in nature. The newspaper said the Badr brigade is equipped and trained by Iranian forces and could be seen as a proxy force of the Iranian government ahead of any regime change in Iraq.
The Times quoted a senior Iranian official who said the deployment was to counter a possible strike into Iran by the People's Mujahedin Organization, an Iranian opposition group linked to Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, that staged attacks on Iran from that area in the 1980-88 war between the two countries.
Al Hakim's forces had previously been based in southern Iran but two months ago began moving into northern Iraq, an area controlled by the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, the newspaper said.
Al Hakim is the leader of the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq and conducted an uprising against Saddam in southern Iraq in 1991 following the Gulf War. His group has been among those included in talks involving U.S. officials and Iraqi opposition factions.
The Times reported that al Hakim's office in Tehran denied that the Badr brigade had moved into Iraq but said it has had some forces in the area for years. While a PUK official told the newspaper there had been no recent movements across the Iran-Iraq border, a U.S. State Department official told the newspaper he was aware of reports that al Hakim forces had moved into Iraq but would not comment further.