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