As US withdrawal nears, Iraqi fear of Iran grows

On a tour of Iraq, Adm. Mike Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, spoke to Iraqis about the threat posed by Iran. Iraqis worry that Iran will fill the void left by the withdrawal of US forces.

Karim Kadim/AP
U.S. Joint Chiefs Chairman Adm. Mike Mullen speaks to the news media in Baghdad, Iraq, Saturday. America's top military officer addressed Iran's takeover of an oil well in southern Iraq, and listened to concerns that the planned US drawdown will remove what protection Iraq has against other Iranian threats.

Iraqis remain deeply concerned about Iranian influence in their country five months before the US begins the massive drawdown of its troops from Iraq.

Next year, elections will be held in March, and the 112,000 American forces will shrink by more than half by the end of August. As that transition nears, Iraq has made significant progress toward greater security.

In the former center of the Sunni insurgency, for example, the governor of Anbar Province is most concerned about how to export cucumbers and obtain foreign investment, not security. Yet worries linger about how Iran might try to fill the void left by American forces.

Anbar Gov. Qasim al Fahadawi told Adm. Mike Mullen, America’s top military officer, that he wishes the Americans would delay their departure.

“When we go to sleep, we keep one eye open, just to be sure,” he told Mullen during Mullen’s swing through Iraq last week.

US shares Iraqis concerns

Mr. Fahadawi’s concerns aren’t necessarily unfounded. On Friday, Baghdad accused Tehran of taking part of a long-disputed oil field in Maysan Province in southeastern Iraq. And Anbar, which is mostly Sunni and still feels isolated from the Shiite government in Baghdad, remains concerned Iran will try to disrupt upcoming elections or work through the government to further shut out the country’s Sunni minority.

But with the clock ticking on withdrawal, there is little the US can do to ease such worries other than to acknowledge the concern and reaffirm that the US and Iraq will enjoy a long term partnership.

“I understand exactly what you’re saying,” Mullen told Fahadawi as they sipped tea together Saturday.

Mullen’s visit, part of a holiday USO tour that included stops in Pakistan, Afghanistan, and Germany, allowed him to see some of the security gains here.

Earlier Saturday, Mullen walked the streets of the Baghdad suburb of Abu Ghraib, where a roadside bomb killed an American soldier and four Iraqi civilians seven months ago. That same strip is now a vibrant market.

A walk through Ramadi

During Mullen's walk, Iraqis there were at once wary and friendly, with children and shopkeepers talking to the American soldiers and posing for pictures. One shopkeeper stopped Mullen to complain about parking. Fears of violence just aren’t as much on the minds of Iraqis as they once were, Mullen said later.

Yet in Iraq, dangers always lurk, as a spate of major bombings recently point up.

The security detail for Mullen’s marketplace walk – provided by the American division in Baghdad – was also a reminder of how nascent stability is here. It included 160 soldiers, a pair of F-16 fighter jets, two Apache attack helicopters, and a drone flying overhead.

Apart from problems between Kurds and Arabs in northern Iraq, the violence that remains is linked to Al Qaeda “opportunists,” not sectarian trouble, American officials say. The solution is a matter of Iraq’s security forces and ministries working to coordinate better, says Lt. Gen. Charles Jacoby, the senior tactical commander for Multi-National Forces Iraq.

As American troops withdraw, the necessary coordination may come into better focus and help keep Iranian influence at bay. Mullen has said repeatedly that he is concerned about Iran’s influence. But he believes most incidents come from lower levels and are not being directed from Tehran.

Some Iraqis have begun to conclude that whatever threat Iran poses, it will soon be theirs to solve.

“There is some Iranian influence on the ground,” lamented an Iraqi imam during Mullen's visit to Basra Friday. But, said Imam Al-Moosawi, “it’s in the hands of the Iraqi leaders, the politicians, to deal with it.”


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