Shadows of Tehran over Iraq
Iran's five-day effort in Najaf raises concerns for US over how much pull Iran possesses.
The Iranian diplomats left Iraq empty handed. But even the failure of a five-day Iranian effort to defuse a standoff between a firebrand Shiite cleric and US forces lets Washington know that Tehran isn't just a spectator.Skip to next paragraph
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Iran's controversial intervention is raising anew questions about Iranian influence among the Shiite majority in Iraq, and how long the shadow of the Islamic republic extends over US plans for Iraq's future.
In recent days, senior US military and civilian officials have repeatedly cast Iran - which President Bush calls part of an "axis of evil" - as a secret backer of the anti-American cleric Moqtada al-Sadr and his Mahdi army. While Tehran has kept its distance, some Iranian hard-liners support Mr. Sadr's strident anti-US message. A CPA adviser and other experts say that Iran is setting up its own networks of sympathizers in Iraq, but that it has not played a direct role in the attacks on the US-led coalition forces.
Iran's ties with Sadr - a fiery nationalist, whose desire to confront the American occupation is at odds with the more established, moderate Shiite forces that Tehran has backed for years - are also less than smooth.
"I am sure the Iranians are not behind the current unrest. No one has produced any evidence Iran is behind that," says a Western CPA adviser in southern Iraq, who asked not to be identified. "Of the people we arrested in the south, none are Iranian agents."
"Iran would try to be quite cautious about any support [for Sadr]. They don't want the Americans to attack or invade Iran, which they know could happen if they are seen to be behind attacks on US forces," says the CPA adviser. "It would not make sense to target coalition forces. That is a high-risk strategy."
Some leading Iraqis agree. "Who is the genius who created the mess in the south so that Iran, our biggest security threat, was invited to come in and help?" asks Ghazi al-Yawar, a ranking Sunni tribal leader, and member of the US-appointed Iraq Governing Council. He answers by blaming the US and Council alike for "mishandling" the Sadr situation.
Iraq's Shiite Arab majority share religious kinship with ethnic Persian Iran, and hundreds of thousands of Iranian pilgrims have swept into Karbala and Najaf to visit sacred shrines in the past year.
The Iranian government under reform-minded President Mohammad Khatami has kept a careful distance from Sadr, and has helped ensure calm in Shiite areas of Iraq. But some key hardliners in Iran openly side with Sadr - and his mentor is a hard-line Iranian ayatollah. Iran's former president Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, chair of the powerful Expediency Council, declared the Mahdi army to be "heroic." America is a "wounded monster" in Iraq, whose defeat would provide a "valuable lesson," Mr. Rafsanjani said at Friday prayers 10 days ago. "We have small accounts with the Americans which we must settle one day and bring the issue to a close."