Questions grow over Iran's influence in Iraq
As Tariq al-Hashemi's death sentence heightens sectarian tensions in Iraq, Shiite Iran's role there is getting more attention, including a potential clerical succession struggle in Najaf.
Istanbul, Turkey; and Najaf, Iraq
The death sentence issued for Iraqi Vice President Tariq al-Hashemi on Sunday is the latest measure of sectarian division in Iraq, where questions about dictatorial rule and the influence of Iran have grown in the nine months since US troops withdrew.Skip to next paragraph
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Mr. Hashemi responded to the verdict by accusing Shiite Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki – and, obliquely, Shiite Iran – of sowing the seeds of sectarian strife in Iraq. More than 100 people died in explosions and insurgent violence on Sunday alone, one of the bloodiest days since US troops withdrew.
"My people, don't give Maliki and those who stand behind him the chance. They want to make this a sectarian strife. Oppose his conspiracies and provocation calmly," Hashemi said, speaking to journalists in the Turkish capital Monday.
Hashemi – long an opponent of the US invasion of Iraq and nine-year military presence – told the The Christian Science Monitor recently that American forces should return to complete the task of democracy building, because of the "sectarian and unqualified management of Maliki and the trouble-making of Iran."
In the charged sectarian atmosphere inside Iraq and the wider Middle East, Iran's role in Iraq has become a subject of intense focus. Some Iraqis warn of an "Iran project" to boost Iranian influence over Iraq's religious city of Najaf, by attempting to install one of Iran's top Shiite clerics – Iraqi-born and trained Ayatollah Mahmoud Hashemi Shahroudi – as the next religious authority in the city. And regional players are watching Maliki's every move for signs of Iran's hand.
Among signs of Iran exerting more influence in Iraq is the air corridor between Iran and Damascus, which overflies Iraq and has aided Mr. Assad's attempt to break the back of a 19-month anti-regime rebellion.
President Barack Obama called Maliki earlier this year, asking that the overflights – apparently stopped under US pressure before the Arab League summit last April – remained stopped, the New York Times reported last week, quoting US officials.
Yet flights began again in July, the Times reported, after a rebel bomb killed four of the Syrian regime's top security officials, galvanizing new advances by the rebel Free Syrian Army. The flights have continued ever since, prompting a follow-up call to Maliki from Vice President Joseph Biden in mid-August.