A series of conflicts with insurgent groups along Iran's borders may be impelling Tehran to back its own allies in Iraq in what it regards as a proxy war with the U.S., according to security experts and officials in the U.S., Iran and Iraq.
Dozens of Iranian officials, members of the security forces and insurgents belonging to Kurdish, Arab Iranian and Baluch groups have died in the fighting in recent years. It now appears to be heating up once again after an unusually cold and snowy winter.
In recent weeks, Iranians have begun the now-routine bombardment of suspected rebel Iranian Kurd positions in northern Iraq, and guerrillas have claimed incursions into northwestern Iran.
Some Iranians blamed Sunni Arab radicals for an explosion Saturday that killed 12 and injured 202 at a gathering where a preacher criticized the Wahhabi form of Islam that inspires Osama bin Laden.
None of the groups appear to pose a serious threat to Iran, but Tehran regards them as Washington's allies in an effort to pressure it to scale back its nuclear program and withhold support for militant groups fighting Israel. American and Iraqi officials in turn accuse Iran of supporting Shiite Muslim militias and other militant groups in Iraq to keep the U.S. preoccupied and the Baghdad government weak.
Although a U.S. intelligence estimate in December undercut claims that Iran has a secret nuclear weapons program and appeared to lower the possibility of a direct military conflict over Iran's uranium enrichment operations, tensions over Iraq have increased. U.S. officials accuse Iran of backing Shiite militias close to cleric Muqtada Sadr that fought Iraqi government forces to a standstill in Basra and Baghdad two weeks ago.
Analysts say the anti-Iranian groups are tempting assets for the U.S. They say it would be a surprise if the groups were not receiving U.S. funding, but that the strategy would probably not work.
"It will give more encouragement to Iran's hard-liners to step up their own efforts to assist anti-American forces in Iraq and Afghanistan," said Bruce Riedel, a former CIA analyst now at the Brookings Institution, a Washington think tank.
Among the most active groups is the Party for Free Life in Kurdistan, known by its Kurdish acronym, PEJAK. It has hundreds of well-trained fighters along with camps in northern Iraq.
Iranian soldiers guarding the border are sometimes ambushed by PEJAK fighters. Iran responds with artillery attacks that send Iraqi villagers scurrying for cover. Border skirmishes last summer and fall between Iranian security forces and PEJAK left dozens dead on both sides.
PEJAK emerged this decade as an Iranian offshoot of the Kurdistan Workers Party, or PKK, an armed group formed to fight a separatist war against the Turkish government.
Former members say PEJAK was meant to circumvent Western restrictions on contacts with the PKK, which has been labeled a terrorist organization by the U.S. State Department and the European Union.
"The PKK wanted to have a relationship with America, so it formed and used PEJAK," said Mamand Rozhe, a former commander who defected from the group four years ago.
U.S. military officials visited PEJAK's camps in northern Iraq just after the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, said Osman Ocalan, a brother of the PKK's imprisoned leader and a founder of PEJAK.
"Since the beginning, we thought we would get the American help," said Ocalan, who left the group two years ago. "And it's a good relationship now. . . . They are in talks with each other, and there is some military assistance."
Ocalan and others say U.S. help has included foodstuffs, economic assistance, medical supplies and Russian military equipment, some of it funneled through nonprofit groups. Every two or three months, U.S. military vehicles can be seen entering PKK and PEJAK strongholds, Ocalan said.
"There's no systematic relationship, no number to call," he said. "Americans do not intend to have an official relationship. Whenever there's any kind of question by the Turks, they can say we don't have a relationship."
A PEJAK leader, Abdul Rahman Haji-Ahmadi, was publicly given a cold shoulder when he went to Washington last summer.
PEJAK's activities may have created obstacles for those working inside Iran for peaceful change. Dozens of Kurdish activists in Iran have been thrown in jail on charges of supporting the rebel group.
"I think that on balance PEJAK does more harm than good," said Aso Saleh, an Iranian journalist and ethnic Kurd who fled his country after being charged with state security crimes that carry a possible death sentence.
"PEJAK's actions give the government the excuse to militarize the region," Saleh said. "It gives the Islamic Republic the excuse to crack down on civil opposition."
Elsewhere, Iranian authorities blamed U.S.-backed elements for a series of bomb attacks in the oil-rich southwestern province of Khuzestan that killed dozens of people from 2005 to 2007. Baluch militants have killed dozens of members of Iran's security forces, including 11 elite Revolutionary Guards in a car bomb attack last year in Zahedan, a town near the border with Pakistan and Afghanistan.
Last fall, a young Kurdish woman killed several officers and soldiers in a suicide attack along Iran's northwestern border.
Other groups can provide precious intelligence to the U.S. The decades-old Kurdistan Democratic Party of Iran, or KDPI, whose members have been the victims of scores of assassinations in Iraq and Europe, allegedly at the hands of Iranian intelligence operatives, has relations with Washington that stretch back decades.
"It's a very warm relationship," said Rostam Jahangiri, leader of the group's Irbil, Iraq, office. "We interact here and in Washington. . . . Sometimes it's once a month. Sometimes it's after three or four months."
The secretive Mujahedin Khalq, also regarded by the U.S. and EU as a terrorist organization, may have little support among Iranians, but its networks extend deep into Iranian territory, and it is credited with exposing Iran's nuclear program in 2002.
Other groups include Jundollah, which operates out of the southwestern Pakistani province of Baluchistan, and Arab groups in Iran's southwest.
The leftist Komala Party of Iran hasn't staged any military operations inside Iran since 1992, but several hundred or so fighters continue to train at their base camp in Zergwe in the autonomous Kurdish northern region of Iraq.
Abdullah Mohtadi, a leader of one of two Komala factions, said he met with White House and State Department officials in 2005 and 2006 to discuss Iran.
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice asked Congress in early 2006 for $75 million to promote democracy in Iran, of which $66 million was approved -- most of it for Persian-language broadcasting. But about $20 million was set aside for unidentified groups the State Department described as "nongovernmental organizations, businesses and universities," for Internet development and "cultural affairs." Congress set aside an additional $60 million for the effort in the current fiscal year.
U.S. officials did not respond to a request for comment on claims that PEJAK or other groups receive funding.
No group officially acknowledges receiving U.S. aid. But many say they would welcome it.
"If you're a political movement that is part of an opposition, you need help from abroad," Mohtadi said. "We're not ashamed to admit it."
A push for rebel aid
Many in Washington have advocated such aid. The rebels fight the same Revolutionary Guard that oversees at least part of Iran's nuclear program and probably funnels support to militant groups in Lebanon and the Palestinian territories.
"It would be a scandal if the U.S. was not funding these groups," said John Pike, director of globalsecurity.org, a website about intelligence and military issues. "The support would be covert and might be done in ways that the groups themselves remain unaware of the ultimate source of their funding."
Still, most of the groups suffer severe weaknesses. KDPI and Komala have endured tumultuous splits in recent years, KDPI in part over whether to align itself with the U.S.
Both PEJAK and the Mujahedin Khalq operate like cults, barring members from having sexual relations and discouraging personal lives. Each touts a strict Marxist ideology.
Iranian diplomats and politicians say they have intelligence to back up their claims that the U.S. aids these groups, but have never publicly provided proof.
"We know the MKO and PEJAK both have relations with the U.S.," said Hamidreza Taraghi, an official of the Islamic Coalition Party, which is close to Iran's conservative religious leadership.
"The Americans have given the MKO a lot of technology to monitor Iranian phone traffic," he said in an interview. "Where is the Baluchistan separatist money coming from?"
Iraqi Kurds say perceived U.S. support for PEJAK and other anti-Iranian groups prompted Iranians to reactivate Ansar al Islam, a Sunni Muslim group with ties to Al Qaeda that has been launching attacks against Kurdish officials.
The Ansar al Islam fighters have been used as a "pressure card" by the Iranians, said Jafar Barzinji, the minister of affairs for peshmerga, or Kurdish security forces, who oversees military issues in Iraq's autonomous Kurdish region.
Iraqi Kurds say they have asked Iranian authorities to rein in Ansar. "They never deny that they're supporting them," Barzinji said. "They always promise a solution in the near future." Sometimes, he said, they bring up PEJAK.
Fareed Asasard, head of the Kurdish Strategic Studies Center, a think tank in the Iraqi Kurdish city of Sulaymaniya, recently visited Tehran to meet with analysts at a research institution close to supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
"The reason for their support of Ansar is PEJAK," he said. "They're 100% worried about PEJAK's actions."
Times staff writer Paul Richter in Washington contributed to this report.