WASHINGTON, Oct. 12 (UPI) -- Suddenly, Iran's growing influence in Iraq is top of the national security agenda again in Britain and America. The influence is real, massive and growing. More than that, following the toppling of Saddam Hussein and the empowerment of Iraq's Shiite majority, it became inevitable. The question is, what to do about it?
Britain last week blamed Iran's Revolutionary Guards for supplying weapons to Shiite militias in southern Iraq in order to attack the 8,000 British troops still deployed there. The attacks included the use of more sophisticated and deadly roadside bombs that killed three British soldiers. Iran has denied the allegations.
And there is no doubt that the Shiite militias are a rising and probably irresistible force in southern Iraq, where most of Iraq's 60 percent Shiite majority lives. Indeed British occupation authorities in the area have turned a blind eye while Shiite militias -- including one loyal to Iraqi Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jafaari -- have infiltrated the police. Two weeks ago, Basra's police chief admitted last week that he could count on the loyalty of only a quarter of his men.
The largest Shiite paramilitary group in Iraq with strong ties to Iran is the Badr Organization, believed to be 20,000 strong. It is the armed wing of the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI) that is now the largest and most powerful political party in iraq.
Iran also backs Moqtada Sadr and his Mahdi Army. U.S. intelligence officers estimate that it is several thousand strong. It rapidly established itself after the fall of Saddam Hussein as a significant paramilitary force in the teeming working-class Shiite districts of Baghdad, and British military intelligence believes it has been growing in numbers and influence rapidly in the south of the country.
Prime Minister al-Jaafari and the United Iraqi Alliance he leads represents the Shiite majority and dominates the government. Al-Jaafari's own al-Dawaa party has very strong ties to Iran. For that matter, so does Deputy Prime Minister Ahmed Chalabi who runs energy policy. U.S. intelligence concluded last year that he may have given crucial U.S. intelligence secrets to Tehran.
Following Saturday's scheduled referendum on Iraq's draft constitution that leaders of the long dominant, but now out in the cold, 20 percent Sunni Muslim minority community have fiercely rejected, Shiite influence over most of the country is expected to dramatically increase.
That will mark a political upheaval of historical magnitude. For the Shiite majority has effectively been powerless, persecuted and acted upon for almost all the last half a millennium, ever since the Sunni Ottoman Empire seized Iraq early in the 16th century and then held it after a series of ding-dong wars with neighboring Persia, or Iran.
A few years after the British Empire conquered the lands of Mesopotamia during World War I and reformed them as the kingdom of Iraq, the Shiites tried to claim the rights of self-determination preached by U.S. President Woodrow Wilson at the 1919 Versailles Peace Conference.
The British reaction was ferocious. The Shiites were crushed after a rising that cost thousands of lives. Iraqi scholars have long claimed the death toll was 100,000. For the next three and a half decades, until the British were finally driven out of Iraq after the 1958 military coup that massacred the nation's Hashemite king and his family, the Shiite community was effectively politically powerless. Political power resided with a Sunni landed elite, tribal chiefs and a Sunni Muslim-dominated army.
Even through the 35 long, dark years of the Second Baathist Republic from 1968 to 2003 that was dominated by Saddam Hussein, the Shiite majority had to obey or suffer the consequences.
Saturday's referendum will, therefore, bring a new dynamic to Iraq and, indeed, to the entire Middle East. It may lead to renewed confidence and militancy in Shiite religious and political groups backed by Iran throughout the Middle East.
Jaafari's United Iraq Alliance looks to Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani as its political as well as religious mentor. Sistani has been quiet, politic, cautious and shrewd since Saddam was toppled. But two facts about him stand out. He remains a citizen of the Islamic Republic of Iran and in the two and a half years since U.S. forces liberated Baghdad, he has never once officially met any U.S. representatives.
Jaafari's appointment as prime minister was welcomed in Washington as a giant stride toward the goal of establishing a peaceful, stable, constitutional state in Iraq friendly to the United States. But his emergence as the first Shiite national leader of Iraq in its history may also be seen part of a very different process -- the rise of a new, militant, politicized and revolutionary Shiism articulated and shaped by the late Grand Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini in Iran.
This was the process that also led to the rise of Hezbollah, the Party of God, among the Shiites of Lebanon, a process that transformed the most passive and unthreatening group in Lebanon to the most militarily formidable and dangerous guerrilla force the Israeli army has ever faced -- and one that it has never conclusively defeated.
And with popular pressure rising fast in the United States to reduce the number of American troops, currently numbering around 150,000 stationed in Iraq in the face of the continuing Sunni insurgency, Iran's influence in the neighboring country looks certain to grow.