Friday, February 16, 2007

Iran's elite and mysterious fighters - Los Angeles Times

Iran's elite and mysterious fighters - Los Angeles Times

The Revolutionary Guard was entrusted to protect Khomeini's theocracy. But the revolutionaries also were inspired to spread their vision abroad.

The Quds Force and its predecessors consisted of the Guard's most skilled warriors. Experts said they were highly secretive commando units sent abroad to help Shiites usurp monarchies in the Persian Gulf, gun down enemies and battle Israeli forces in southern Lebanon. They also reportedly have run operations in Sudan, South Asia and Western Europe.

Their plans sometimes coincided with U.S. interests, as when they supported Afghans fighting the Soviet Union in the 1980s and Bosnian Muslims battling Serbs in the 1990s.

The Quds Force also has been involved in Iraq. It assisted Kurdish rebels fighting Saddam Hussein in the 1980s and Shiites battling his regime in the 1990s. Even Ahmad Chalabi's expatriate Iraqi National Congress had Quds Force help, experts say.

At most, the force numbers 2,000, said Mahan Abedin, director of research at the Center for the Study of Terrorism, a London think tank.

"It's a remarkably efficient organization, quite possibly one of the best special forces units in the world," he said.

The extent to which the Quds Force is controlled by the government has been hotly debated in U.S. foreign policy circles.

"This has been a topic of debate among Iran experts inside and outside the government for 25 years," said Kenneth M. Pollack, an Iran expert at the Brookings Institution's Saban Center for Middle East Policy. "There are people who believe the Quds Force does not move a muscle without getting explicit orders from [supreme leader Ayatollah Ali] Khamenei; there are other people who believe they are rogues. The weight of evidence is somewhere in the middle."

There are signs that Quds Force-linked operatives have taken orders from Tehran for overseas missions.

Most notable, Pollack said, were the 1992 killings of an Iranian Kurdish separatist leader and three associates in Berlin by four gunmen led by an Iranian agent. In 1997, a German court found that the slayings had been ordered by a government committee in Tehran that included Khamenei and then-President Hashemi Rafsanjani.

There has been evidence of rifts between Iran's government and the Revolutionary Guard and Quds Force. The Revolutionary Guard occasionally has tried to push the government into more extremist positions.

In 1998, for example, thousands of Guard troops gathered on the border with Afghanistan in what appeared to be a move against the Taliban regime. There was suspicion that the Revolutionary Guard was working independently. The government later sent conventional forces to "keep a watch" on the Guard, Pollack said.

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