Sunday, 18 October 2009

New York Times: Iran Guard Commanders Are Killed in Bombings


RIYADH, Saudi Arabia — At least five commanders of Iran’s elite Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps were killed and dozens of others left dead and injured in two terrorist bombings in the restive region of the nation’s southeastern frontier with Pakistan, according to multiple Iranian state news agencies.

The coordinated attacks appeared to mark an escalation in hostilities between Iran’s leadership and one of the nation’s many disgruntled ethnic and religious minorities, in this case the Baluchis. The southeast region, Sistan-Baluchistan, has been the scene of terrorist attacks in the past, and in April the government put the elite Guards Corps in control of security there to try to stop the escalating violence.

Iranian officials have accused foreign enemies of supporting the terrorist insurgents and repeated that charge Sunday. By midday, official news reports from Iran said that 31 people were killed and at least 28 injured.
“There is no doubt that this violent and inhumane act was part of the strategy of foreigners and enemies of the regime and the revolution to destroy unity between Shias and Sunnis and create divisions among the unified ranks of the great Iranian people,” said a statement issued by the Revolutionary Guards through the official IRNA news service.

In a brief statement on Sunday, the United States condemned the suicide bombing and denied it had anything to do with it. “We condemn this act of terrorism and mourn the loss of innocent lives. Reports of alleged U.S. involvement are completely false,” said Ian Kelly, U.S. State Department spokesman, according to Reuters.

The attack comes a day before Iran is set to meet for another round of sensitive talks on its nuclear program with several Western countries.
The bombers struck early Sunday as the Guards prepared to bring together leaders of the region’s Shiite and Sunni Muslim communities to try to reconcile differences.

Iran is a nation of about 70 million people. More than half are Persians, with the remainder comprising ethnic groups, like the Baluchis of Sistan-Baluchistan or the Arabs of Khuzestan, both of which are Sunni Muslims. Many ethnic and religious groups have complained of discrimination in areas like education and employment. But in the south, those complaints have spawned some violent protests.

“With regards to Sistan-Baluchistan area, there is an ethnic and sectarian nature to the issue,” said Mustafa El Labbad, director of the East Center for Regional and Strategic Studies in Cairo, Egypt. “There is the Baluchi versus Persian, and there is Sunni versus Shiite. It also lies on the border with Pakistan, which is not totally secured — weapons can come through. So there is a very explosive blend there.”

A terrorist group calling itself Jundallah — or Soldiers of God — took responsibility for the attacks, according to the state-owned Press TV. The group is made up of ethic Baluchis, who can also be found in Pakistan and Afghanistan, and has taken credit for other attacks in the region in recent years.
The Jundallah has ties across the border into Pakistan, and Iranian officials say it has been encouraged, financed and armed by the United States.

“The global arrogance, with the provocation of its local mercenaries, targeted the meeting of the Guard with local tribal leaders,” said a statement by the Guards that was broadcast on state television, according to The Associated Press.
The United States has in the past denied giving direct assistance to the group. There was no immediate comment on the day’s events in Iran from Washington.
The meeting Sunday was to be held in the city of Pisheen to try to improve the dialogue among the different communities, according to the Iranian news reports. In one attack, a suicide bomber wearing a military uniform and an explosive belt entered a mosque where guard commanders were organizing a reconciliation meeting between local Sunni and Shiite Muslim leaders, according to the semi-official ILNA news service.

A second attack took place on a road in the same area when a car carrying a group of Guards members was attacked and bombed, according to multiple state news agencies. According to the Fars News Agency, which is affiliated with the Guards, those killed included the lieutenant commander of ground forces, Brigadier General Nourali Shoushtari, as well as the commanders of Sistan and Baluchistan province, the Iranshahr Corps, the Sarbaz Corps and the Amiralmoemenin Brigade.

“The commanders had traveled to the southeastern province to provide the ground for the ‘Shiite-Sunni Tribes’ Solidarity Conference,” Fars reported.

Though the attacks come in the context of local issues, they also come at a time when the Guards have emerged as the most powerful political, social and economic bloc in the nation, eclipsing all others, from the clergy to the conservatives. In the aftermath of Iran’s contested presidential election, the Guards took control of national security, overseeing a violent crackdown on protests as well as mass arrests of journalists, former officials, academics and ordinary protestors.

In this context, Mr. Labbad said, an attack on the Guard — no matter the motivation — has symbolic resonance across the nation and the world. “It is designed to affect the image of Iran,” Mr. Labbad said. “Iran now looks like a state that is not secure. It is secure, but it has the image of being internally unstable.”

Iranian officials are slated to meet Monday in Vienna with officials of several countries to discuss an accord reached recently in Geneva to ship most of Iran’s publicly declared stockpile of lightly enriched uranium to Russia, where it would be further enriched. It would then be returned to Iran, where it would fuel a research reactor in Tehran.

The negotiations are part of a longstanding effort by the West to try to halt
Iran’s nuclear program, which many in the West say is geared toward producing weapons. Iran says the program is designed to generate energy.
Mona el-Naggar contributed reporting from Riyadh.

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