AP: Iran appears to have suffered a setback in last weekend's Iraqi elections, with Tehran's closest allies losing key races in what suggests a public backlash to what many Iraqis see as undue Iranian influence in their country.
The Associated Press
By ROBERT H. REID
BAGHDAD (AP) — Iran appears to have suffered a setback in last weekend's Iraqi elections, with Tehran's closest allies losing key races in what suggests a public backlash to what many Iraqis see as undue Iranian influence in their country.
That would represent a surprising reversal for Shiite-led Iran, which had seemed the big winner in the 2003 U.S.-led invasion that toppled Saddam Hussein's Sunni-dominated regime and empowered Iraq's majority Shiites.
Western and Arab analysts had long feared that a Shiite-governed Iraq would inevitably fall under the sway of its far larger Shiite neighbor, enabling the Iranians to expand their influence westward into the heart of the Middle East.
The two countries maintain close commercial and cultural ties — from Iranian consumer goods in the markets of Basra and Najaf in southern Iraq to the tens of thousands of Iranian pilgrims who visit Shiite religious sites here every year.
But Saturday's regional elections indicate that Iraqi nationalism trumped religious sentiments and that Iran's ability to influence policies in Iraq has its limits, even if Shiites dominate the government here for years to come.
The big issues in the campaign were local — garbage collection, housing shortages, political corruption, unclean water. Beneath the surface, however, was an undertone of anti-Iranianism. Some candidates even in the Shiite south told voters they were "100 percent Iraqi."
Many Iraqis — and not just Sunnis — still harbor deep-seated suspicion of the Iranians dating back to the Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s. Iraqi Shiites bore the brunt of the casualties in the war because so many of them were low-ranking front-line soldiers.
The apparent setback for Tehran comes only weeks after Iraq signed deals with the United States, not only setting a timeline for the withdrawal of American forces but also establishing a long-term strategic partnership with Washington.
Official results from the elections — for ruling provincial councils — are not expected before Thursday.
But leaks from political parties with access to the figures indicate that Iran's closest Iraqi ally — the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council — is trailing in all nine southern provinces and in Baghdad.
Instead, many Iraqi Shiites gave their votes to Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's coalition and other parties that ran on secular platforms and portrayed themselves as Iraqi nationalists.
Al-Maliki's allies in his Coalition of the State of Law also profited from public support for the prime minister's crackdown last year on Shiite militias in Basra, Baghdad and other cities.
U.S. officials and many Iraqis believe those militias were trained, armed and financed by Iran — a charge the Iranians have consistently denied.
A few southern races, notably in Najaf, are so tight that the Supreme Council may yet finish first — but with too few council seats to govern without sharing power with rivals.
That could mean the end — at least for the time being — of the Supreme Council's dream of establishing a self-ruled Shiite region in the oil-rich south modeled after the Kurdish mini-state in the north.
Al-Maliki and other Shiite politicians oppose the self-rule plan, fearing it would weaken the Iraqi state and open the door to Iranian influence, especially in the main southern city of Basra, located a few miles from the Iranian border.
The Supreme Council also works with the United States, and party officials sought to play down their ties to Iran as the reason for their disappointing performance.
Instead, they said the party suffered from public outrage over lack of services in provinces that it had dominated since the last provincial election January 2005.
Jalaluddin al-Saghir, a Shiite cleric and prominent Supreme Council member, also insisted that the party's losses did not indicate that the public was tired of religious parties.
"We do not accept the claims that our nation wants the secularism because our nation is Muslim thus they want Islam," he told The Associated Press.
Nonetheless, the Supreme Council's rivals sought to portray the cleric-dominated party as an instrument of Iran, where it was founded in 1982 by Iraqi Shiites who fled Saddam's tyranny.
Ahead of the vote, some parties sent text messages to would-be voters urging them to favor candidates who would "stop Iranian influence in Iraqi affairs."
In Basra, one major Shiite party, Fadhila, sought to contrast itself with the Supreme Council by alluding to its pro-Iranian image.
"Fadhila, a party that is 100 percent Iraqi," campaign posters declared. Others proclaimed Fadhila was "born in Iraq and financed by Iraqis."
As a sign of Iraqi suspicions, the appearance of an Iranian diplomat at voting places in Basra caused an election day stir, even though he and diplomats from the U.S. and other countries had been authorized to observe the balloting.
"Iran should know that Iraq is not … an Iranian colony," said Sunni politician Mustafa al-Haiti. "We will maintain our dignity and honesty and not allow them to interfere in our internal affairs."
The disappointing showing indicates the Supreme Council may have to refurbish its Iraqi nationalist credentials before national balloting when Iraqis will choose a new parliament which in turn selects a prime minister.
"The elections gave us an indication of what will happen in the general election late this year," said Iraqi analyst Mustafa al-Ani, based in Dubai, United Arab Emirates. "Those who lost in this election have nearly a year to learn their lesson and change their strategy. They know now where the Iraqis stand."
Robert H. Reid is the AP bureau chief in Baghdad and has covered Iraq since 2003.