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.
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."
Experts say Iran has been actively setting up "networks" in Iraq to be made ready to destabilize things in case of any US action against Iran. "The Iranians want to be in a position to meddle. They will gather intelligence, maybe collect weapons, to exploit a situation if America were to attack them," says the CPA adviser. "If you are Iranian, it would be sensible to create networks."
The US standoff with Sadr stems from an arrest warrant issued for the cleric over the murder of a moderate rival in Najaf a year ago, the arrest of his top aide, and closure of his newspaper. As violent clashes erupted across southern Iraq, the US vowed to "capture or kill" the cleric.
A 2,500-strong US force last week encircled Najaf and Sadr's base at nearby Kufa. Grand Ayatollah Ali Al-Sistani, who commands a broad following, has warned Sadr not to bring his fight into the holy cities. Still, on Thursday, Mr. Sistani issued a fatwa that US troops entering Karbala or Najaf would be crossing a "red line."
Sadr speaking at Friday prayers in Kufa, flatly refused to disband the Mahdi army under any circumstance - a key US demand.
Into this maelstrom stepped the Iran mediation effort last week, led by Foreign Ministry envoy Hossein Sadegi. The visit was overshadowed by the death of an Iranian diplomat, who was gunned down in his car on Thursday, as the delegation arrived.
The Iran team met a US diplomat, in a rare face-to-face session, and numerous Iraqi officials and clerics. A planned meeting with Grand Ayatollah Sistani in Najaf never took place; Sadr was not on the schedule.
"We had a firm message for the Iranians across the board ... to be constructive, not destructive," said CPA spokesman Dan Senor. "There is no role for the Iranians, from our perspective, in the Sadr situation [which] should be resolved by Iraqis."
"There is no doubt, bad or good, Iran has some influence in Iraq," counters Davoud Hermidas Bavand, a professor with Iran's official Center for Political and International Studies in Tehran. He says Iran has been "accommodating" of US interests. "If [America] is faced with ever increasing difficulties, they will look for a scapegoat."
US officials have long suggested that Sadr receives direct support from Iran's Revolutionary Guard and Lebanon's Hizbullah. One London-based Al-Sharq al-Awsat newspaper quoted what it called a Revolutionary Guard source who described three military camps on the Iran-Iraq border for up to 1,200Mahdi army recruits.
Sadr's theological link to Iran is clear: he follows hard-line Iranian Ayatollah Kazem al-Haeri, who was appointed successor to his popular father, killed by Baathists in 1999.
But experts say the al-Haeri-Sadr link is overblown. "I don't think Moqtada Sadr is taking directions from [Iran's religious center] Qom or Tehran. I think he is independent from Iran," writes David Patel, a political scientist at Stanford University, who has been conducting research in southern Iraq. "If the Iranian hardliners wanted to back a player in Iraq, it would be one of the large SCIRI/Badr [Shiite exile groups once based in Iran] offices, not Moqtada Sadr."
Even Sadr's mentor in Iran called for Iraqis to "observe patience."