News On Iran & Its NeighboursIraqIraq Dances With Iran, While America Seethes

Iraq Dances With Iran, While America Seethes


New York Times: Donald H. Rumsfeld, the defense secretary, delivered a blunt message to Iraqi leaders during a visit here last week: the Iraqis would have to be more aggressive in opposing the “harmful” meddling of Iran in this country’s affairs before the Americans could consider regional stability assured and the way clear for the United States forces to go home. New York Times


BAGHDAD, Iraq – DONALD H. RUMSFELD, the defense secretary, delivered a blunt message to Iraqi leaders during a visit here last week: the Iraqis would have to be more aggressive in opposing the “harmful” meddling of Iran in this country’s affairs before the Americans could consider regional stability assured and the way clear for the United States forces to go home.

It was an argument with a paradox at its heart.

Regaining a semblance of stability here is a goal of both the Iraqi government and the Americans. But the country’s elected leadership apparently believes that Iraq’s long-term welfare will depend on building a strong relationship with Iran as well as on maintaining ties to the United States. As the Shiite Arab leaders who now hold sway in Baghdad see it, support from their co-religionists in Iran could be decisive in keeping Iraq from slipping further into chaos.

That is clearly not the kind of stability Mr. Rumsfeld has in mind.

The Shiite leaders, though, already draw support from Iran as well as the United States in the face of the deep Sunni Arab resentment that has fed the insurgency here. Their political parties have historically had much stronger ties to Iran than to the United States, which, as they vividly recall, did nothing while Saddam Hussein slaughtered up to 150,000 Shiites who rebelled after the 1991 gulf war.

The Shiite parties also assume that the American enterprise here will probably end as centuries of foreign adventures in this part of the world have – with the imperial nation eventually withdrawing and leaving the region to sort out its own affairs.

Before American forces invaded, some analysts in Washington predicted that Iran would hold little appeal for Iraq’s 17 million Shiites because they are Arabs while most of Iran’s Shiites are Persians, historical enemies of the Arabs. That view failed to anticipate the depth of tension and violence that have now divided Iraq’s Arabs, largely along lines of the two main branches of Islam, Sunni and Shiite. Still, American officials hold to the belief that, in the end, Iraqi nationalism, which Shiites here share, will keep Iraq from being pulled into Iran’s orbit.

The reality, however, is that Iraqi leaders, with the encouragement of their Iranian counterparts, are trying to forge stronger bonds with Iran in many spheres, from reconstruction to the writing of the constitution.

“We’ve had good relations with the great Islamic Republic for more than two decades,” Abdul Aziz al-Hakim, a powerful Shiite politician, said at a recent news conference in Basra.

“Iran opens its doors and receives the Iraqis, and there is a huge number of Iraqis in Iran,” he added.

Mr. Hakim’s party, the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, was founded by Mr. Hakim’s older brother, Muhammad Bakr al-Hakim, while he was in exile in Iran in the 1980’s. Its armed wing, the Badr Brigade, was trained by Iran’s military and fought Mr. Hussein’s forces in the Iran-Iraq war, when many other Shiites served in the Iraqi army.

The Supreme Council’s biggest Shiite rival, the Dawa Islamic Party, is led by Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari, who lived in exile in Iran for many years before moving to London and who visited Iran this month.

Since then, he has been proclaiming the benefits of strengthening relations with Iran, despite the aversion to the idea by the Americans and by Sunni Arabs, whom the Americans want included in the political process.

At a news conference on June 21, Mr. Jaafari said Iran’s government would spend about $1 billion to build schools, hospitals and libraries in Iraq. He also said he and 10 ministers met with top clerics and politicians in Tehran and discussed border security and promoting religious tourism to Najaf and Karbala, the two Shiite holy cities south of Baghdad.

Under an agreement announced this month, Iraq and Iran are to build an oil pipeline between Basra and Abadan in Iran, through which Iran would receive Iraqi crude oil to refine, in return for exporting an equal amount of oil on Iraq’s behalf through the Iranian port at Kharg Island.

Muhammad al-Waeli, the governor of Basra and a devout Shiite, said in an interview that the Iraqi government was also trying to work out a deal with Iran to buy electricity for his region, because the Americans and British have been too slow at reconstruction.

All this amounts to a multi-pronged Iranian effort to reinforce the Shiite powers in Iraq. Many Iraqis distrust Iran because of the Iran-Iraq war, which took up to 1 million lives on both sides, but they also realize that Iran has been the historical defender of the minority Shiite branch of Islam against the Sunni Arab masses.

There is no evidence that Iran is directly influencing the writing of the Iraqi constitution; still, a shadow of theocracy can be seen in the religious language that the Shiite leaders have championed in recent drafts. One calls for Islam to be “the main source” of legislation, and includes a measure that appears to substantially change a 1959 civil law that guarantees some protection for women’s rights. It also bestows special status on top Shiite ayatollahs.

Sunni politicians have sharply denounced some of the language, and Zalmay Khalilzad, the new American ambassador, said last week that the Americans would closely monitor the writing of the constitution. That warning, with Mr. Rumsfeld’s strong urgings, indicates an awareness of the possibility that the current course of Iraq’s most powerful elected leaders could end up producing a Shiite religious state, perhaps serving as a proxy for Iran.

That is not to say that Iraq will end up a carbon copy of Iran. Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, the most powerful Shiite cleric here, follows a school of Shiite Islam that veers away from the philosophy of government by jurisprudence that Iran’s Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini advocated. So it seems unlikely that Iraq will create a clerical supreme leader or council of guardians as the law’s final arbiters, as in Iran.

But a few more heated battles over the role of Islam could leave some Americans tempering their distaste for the brand of secular Sunni Arab nationalism that was discarded along with Saddam Hussein.

Nazila Fathi contributed reporting from Tehran for this article.

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