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Iraqi Sunnis worry about Iran's influence on Shiite leaders

Liz Sly
Chicago Tribune (MCT)

BAGHDAD, Iraq - In the cafeteria of Iraq's parliament, Shiite legislators lapse into Persian when they don't want their conversations overheard. In the holy city of Najaf, an Iranian charity helps newlyweds buy furniture. Iranian weapons, freshly manufactured, are turning up in arms caches seized from insurgents in and around Baghdad.

These are among the many ways in which Iran's soaring influence is being felt in Iraq, where Iran's complex entanglement in the affairs of its neighbor lies at the heart of the schism threatening to tear Iraq - and the region - apart.

To Iraq's Sunnis, Iran's ascendancy as a regional power and its close relationship with the Shiite-led government represent a pernicious threat to the survival of Iraq's Arab identity.

"America handed Iraq to Iran on a golden plate," says Sunni politician Saleh al-Mutlaq. "Everything Iran fought for in the Iran-Iraq war, America gave to it when it invaded."

To Iraq's Shiites, however, Iran is a natural ally, a neighbor whose friendship should be welcomed after decades of hostility that included the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq war.

Iranian officials confirmed Wednesday that they would send an envoy to a meeting in Baghdad Saturday with the U.S., Syria and others to discuss Iraq's security. As that conference of mid-level diplomats takes shape, Iraqis agree on only one thing: So far, it is Iran, not the U.S., that has benefited most from the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq.

"Iran has emerged as the biggest winner of the United States' war," writes Shiite scholar Vali Nasr in the current issue of the prestigious Foreign Policy journal, which ranks Iran No. 1 among the top 10 beneficiaries of the war. "For Iran, the war in Iraq turned out to be a strategic windfall."

Indeed, Iran barely had to lift a finger to win this round in its centuries-old rivalry with Iraq. By removing the two staunchly Sunni regimes ruling Iran's neighbors - the Taliban in Afghanistan and the Baathists in Iraq - the U.S. eliminated the two biggest security threats to Iran's borders within a period of less than two years.

The advent of democracy in Iraq further leveraged Iran's influence, by installing in Baghdad a Shiite-dominated government, many of whose leaders had been sheltered in Iran during the years they stood in opposition to Saddam Hussein's regime, making them naturally inclined toward friendship with Iran.

Arab Iraq, long ruled by Sunnis, has traditionally served as a bulwark against the Shiite Persians to the east. Now under Shiite rule, Iraq has become the vanguard for Iran's expansionist ambitions in the Arab world, Sunnis say.

In the Palestinian Territories, Iran funds the radical Hamas movement. In Lebanon, its protege Hezbollah is flexing its muscles, demanding a greater share of power in the Lebanese government. Iran's push to acquire a nuclear weapon is regarded as a direct threat to the strategic interests of the Arab oil-producing countries of the Persian Gulf.

In Baghdad, Sunnis now see an Iranian hand in almost every decision the Iraqi government takes. The extremist al-Qaida in Iraq refers to Baghdad's Green Zone, where both the U.S. Embassy and the Iraqi government are based, as "the American-Persian-Zionist Zone."

"You can feel it. It's everywhere," said Mithal Alusi, a moderate Sunni parliamentarian, who cites his own personal encounter with Iran's methods as evidence of the reach of Iranian influence into Iraqi politics.

Last October, Iran's ambassador to Iraq announced he was paying a visit to Alusi's office. The ambassador brought a beautiful Persian rug and offered to finance Alusi's small Iraqi Nation party. Alusi declined the offer.

"If they're offering to fund me, a Sunni, you can only imagine who else they are paying," said Alusi. "They don't ask for conditions, but it makes people think twice about saying anything against Iran."

U.S. officials say they have been aware for some time that Iran is financing a wide array of parties and politicians.

Recently, the military has also accused Iran of funding and arming the Mahdi Army, Iraq's biggest militia, which is controlled by radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr. The U.S. also accuses Iran of supplying sophisticated roadside bombs to Shiite militant groups, though ranking American officials have said they still can't prove that the Iranian government is directly involved.

As U.S. pressure on Iran has intensified in recent weeks, however, Iraq's Shiite leaders have been seeking to distance themselves from Iran.

Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, who spent his exile years in Damascus and is regarded as one of the least pro-Iranian members of his Dawa Party, has often tried to dissuade Iran from interfering in Iraq, but to no avail, his aides say.

"Maliki has always maintained that Iranian influence and meddling exist and it will have to end," said an adviser to al-Maliki, speaking on condition of anonymity. "But they don't give you a clear answer. He always says you can't get anything out of them."

Iraq's Shiite leaders say their relationship with Iran is misunderstood and that the suspicions of Arab states toward the Shiite-led government are unjustified.

"The problem is not Iran. The problem is how Arabs look at the Shiites. They ask, are they Arabs? Are they Iraqis? They label us as Iranian collaborators, and that has caused problems in Iraq for the past 50 years," said Humam Hamoodi, the head of the foreign affairs committee in Iraq's parliament and a leader of the Iran-founded Badr Brigade who spent nearly 20 years in exile in Iran.

"If (Sunni Arabs) don't adjust this attitude, Iraq's problems will only magnify and intensify," he said.

Across the predominantly Shiite south, where Iran's influence is most profoundly felt, the fall of Hussein's regime unleashed a surge of tourism, trade and religious exchanges across a border that had been off-limits to Shiites on both sides for decades.

In Najaf, Shiite Islam's holiest city, Iranian tour buses offload 1,200 pilgrims a day outside the gold-domed Imam Ali shrine, where a major, Iranian-funded renovation is under way. An Iranian delegation is in town to find ways of boosting that number to 5,000.

Local markets are flooded with Iranian products, "from bricks to socks," said one resident. Street vendors have hastily learned Persian in order to communicate with the tourists.

But there are tensions too. Najaf residents complain that the Iranian buses are allowed to drive right up to the shrine, while Iraqi visitors have to disembark nearly a mile away and walk through the barricaded streets. Iraqis whisper that the city has been infiltrated by the Ittila'at, the Iranian secret service.

"There are many differences between the Shiites of Iraq and Iran," said Hamoodi, the Shiite legislator. "We want democracy, Iran wants Islamic rule. . . . We want good relations with America, they have problems with America. We want an open economy, their economy is closed. We feel our Arabism, and we wrote it in our constitution."

Indeed, the relationship between Iran and Iraq's Shiites is far more complicated than is portrayed by many in the region, said Joost Hiltermann of the Jordan-based International Crisis Group, who detects an element of hysteria in some of the direst warnings about Iranian expansionism.

"Not all Iranians are Shiite, and not all Shiites are Iranian. Iran has influence over some but not others," he said. "The majority of Shiites don't support the Iranian regime and they're not Persians. There's very strong animosity between Arabs and Persians."

Yet, although Iran's influence may sometimes be overstated, there is little likelihood of diminishing its links with Iraq's Shiite leaders as long as the schism persists between Sunnis and Shiites, said Nasr, the Shiite scholar, who is a senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations.

"They're natural friends in the current environment," he said in a telephone interview. "As long as you have a Sunni-Shiite civil war, that's going to decide where loyalties lie."


(Chicago Tribune correspondents Hassan Jarrah in Najaf and Nadeem Majeed contributed to this report.)

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