Reuters: The Iraqi prime minister met his erstwhile Shi’ite Muslim rival in Iran Monday, state television said, as Tehran moved to patch over their differences to help ensure Iraq’s next government is led by Shi’ites.
By Ramin Mostafavi and Parisa Hafezi
TEHRAN (Reuters) – The Iraqi prime minister met his erstwhile Shi’ite Muslim rival in Iran Monday, state television said, as Tehran moved to patch over their differences to help ensure Iraq’s next government is led by Shi’ites.
With Iranian intervention, Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki had already won the public backing of fiery anti-American cleric Moqtada al-Sadr for his bid for a second term in office after an inconclusive election seven months ago.
Their meeting was believed to be their first since Sadr fled into self-imposed exile in Iran in 2008 after Maliki ordered Iraqi troops, backed by U.S. forces, to crush his Mehdi army militia amid sectarian warfare then raging in Iraq.
Iran’s Arabic-language television al-Alam did not name the city where Maliki and Sadr had met but said it would soon report further details of their session.
Since Iraq’s March election, its leaders have been unable to agree on a new government, raising concern about a revival of violence between once-dominant Sunnis and the majority Shi’ites who were hoisted into power after Saddam Hussein’s fall in 2003.
Maliki flew to Tehran Monday to cultivate support for his bid for a new term because Iran has wielded significant influence in Baghdad since the demise of Saddam.
Iranian leaders had been lukewarm about backing Maliki, whom they are thought to view as overly independent, but this month they appear to have prevailed on Sadr to ally with him.
Many of the Shi’ite political parties that dominate Iraq now were nurtured by Iran during their long exile under Saddam.
In a meeting with Maliki earlier Monday, Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei called on political factions in Iraq to reach a consensus on forming a new government, according to state television.
“All politicians and officials in Iraq should focus on formation of a new government as soon as possible,” Khamenei told Maliki during his one-day visit.
The United States and Iraq’s Arab neighbors are jittery about Iran’s growing sway in Iraq and across the Middle East.
Arab nations want Maliki to form a national unity government that would include the cross-sectarian, Sunni-backed Iraqiya bloc that won a leading 91 seats in Iraq’s 325-seat assembly.
Maliki’s State of Law bloc won 89 seats, while the Iran-tilted Iraqi National Alliance, a Shi’ite grouping that includes Sadr, wound up with 70 seats.
With U.S. troops set to leave Iraq by the end of next year, the country is entering a new phase of uncertainty. But Khamenei said “the occupiers” were the source of insecurity in Iraq.
U.S. and Iraqi officials often accuse non-Arab Iran of stirring up trouble in Iraq by allowing arms, agents and money to cross its borders. Tehran denies the allegations.
Tehran and Washington cut diplomatic ties shortly after Iran’s 1979 Islamic revolution. Washington has led diplomatic efforts to isolate Iran over its nuclear energy program, seen in the West as a cover to build bombs, a charge denied by Iran.
“I wish the almighty God ends America’s menace over Iraq as soon as possible … it will solve the Iraqi nation’s problems,” said Khamenei.
In a separate meeting with Maliki, hardline Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad expressed hope that “with the formation of an Iraqi government the period of hardship for the Iraqi people would end,” the official IRNA news agency reported.
“Iran fully supports a united, strong and independent Iraq which would be at the service of the Iraqi people … and the region’s progress,” Ahmadinejad added, according to IRNA.
(Additional reporting by Hossein Jaseb; editing by Mark Heinrich)