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.

Scott Peterson/Getty Images
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.

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

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."

While US officers accuse Iran of backing an array of anti-US and antigovernment militia groups in Iraq – and of providing lethal weaponry – a study by the Combating Terrorism Center at West Point last month underlines a host of other Iranian aims.

"It is entirely possible that in five years Iran will have more influence in Baghdad than the United States," notes the report. Iran's support of Iraqi militants is a "product of realpolitik rather than Islamist ideology" and "entirely rational" in light of the US presence and ties with Iraq. Ironically, the report notes, the same elected Iraqi government that is America's "best hope for a stable Iraq ... is also Iran's primary mode of projecting power in Iraq."

But the power Iran is projecting across Suleiman's border outpost is decidedly soft, as up to 500 Iranian pilgrims travel through here every day to religious sites in southern Iraq. Suleiman's concern is how to calm their fears: They worry about getting ripped off, getting luggage from Iranian to Iraqi buses, or finding hotels.

The pilgrims, with women wearing the top-to-toe black chador preferred by more devout and conservative Iranians, are grateful for the unexpected support.

"Some of them give me their addresses in Iran," says Suleiman of the invitations. "They say: 'If you come, you are welcome. We will feed you and want to serve you, as you have served us.' "

That is a big change for the ex-tank captain whose opinion of Iranians until he took this job in 2003 was defined by the bloodiest war in modern history. "I counted them as my enemy, that's it. All people fight for their country. What can you do?" recalls Suleiman, noting that sometimes his own side took 100 casualties in one engagement. "I know the Iranians very well and don't trust them. They are lying all the time."

There are few places in Iraq where Americans come in such close contact with Iranians than at this outpost. Sometimes US soldiers visit to snap pictures of themselves in front of posters of Ayatollah Khomeini and Iran's current supreme religious leader, Ayatollah Sayed Ali Khamenei.

US contractors also often select Iranians to line up and have their retinas scanned and fingerprints taken. In October the Iranian government complained that such steps were illegal and amounted to "misconduct against pilgrims," according to Iran's official news agency, IRNA.

After being processed at the crossing, pilgrims pile onto buses and ride by the front of the nearest US base, which is marked only by tall blast walls and a sign noting that "Deadly Force is Authorized" in the event of illegal entry.

"We try to respect all Iranians here," says Suleiman. "In Iraq we don't have a big number of corrupt people. But some are very corrupt and give a bad impression for all."

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