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At Iraqi border outpost, signs of improving ties with Iran

As US forces pull back, Iran is expected to widen its influence in Iraq, despite the two countries' history of war and mistrust.

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / December 22, 2008

Unlikely ambassador: Iraqi border chief Brig. Gen. Khaled Suleiman, a veteran of the Iran-Iraq War, watches over Iranian pilgrims on their way to Shiite holy cities in southern Iraq.

Scott Peterson/Getty Images

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ALMUNTHERIA, Iraq

The Iraqi general could not be a less likely guardian angel – a benevolent watcher of travel-worn Iranian pilgrims crossing his remote border outpost.

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As an Iraqi tank captain in the war with Iran, Brig. Gen. Khaled Suleiman shelled enemy positions and killed Iranian soldiers. He says to this day he still has no affection for Iranians.

But his sense of patriotism trumps his personal animosity – and serves as a window into the convoluted relationship between Iran and Iraq since the fall of Saddam Hussein.

"Now I am the picture representing all Iraqis and want the Iranians to have a good impression," says General Suleiman of pilgrims making their way to the Shiite holy cities of Najaf and Karbala. "We want to show a peaceful image to the Iranians, to welcome them."

Iraq's Shiite-led government has close ties with the rulers of Iran, where many current leaders spent years living in exile. And despite a war between Iran and Iraq that left 1 million dead or wounded, Iran's influence here is only growing and set to increase as US forces begin to pull back.

Iraq's parliament agreed to a security pact with the US late last month that will see American military movements restricted next June and a full withdrawal by the end of 2011.

Iran did not hide its distaste for the proposed deal before it passed – and it used its sway with Iraq's Shiite leaders to extract significant changes to the original US version. Iran's influence led to setting a firm date for a US pullout and a promise that Iraq won't be used by the US to attack other nations in the region. That assurance is seen as a nod to Iran, which has been subjected to frequent threats from Washington over its nuclear program and allegations of backing anti-US militants in Iraq.

US Army Lt. Gen. Thomas Metz said last week the number of lethal roadside bombs – which the US says Iran provides to Iraqi militias – has gone "way down" during the past three months. "Someone has made a decision on the Shiite side in connection with Iran ... to bring them down," he said in Washington. The number of discoveries of such bombs, called explosively formed penetrators (EFPs), has dropped from up to 80 a month to as low as 12.

Still, US forces announced Friday that they had detained a "suspected Iranian intelligence agent" 20 miles north of Baghdad who they claimed to be an "alleged commander of Iranian special operations in Iraq."

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