Edward Wong / The New York Times – 2005-08-01 09:31:35
BAGHDAD (August 1, 2005) — Donald Rumsfeld, the US defense secretary, delivered a blunt message to Iraqi leaders during a visit here last week: The Iraqis would have to be more aggressive in opposing the “harmful” meddling of Iran in this country’s affairs before the United States could consider regional stability assured and the way clear for American forces to go home.
It was an argument with a paradox at its heart.
Regaining a semblance of stability here is a goal of both the Iraqi government and the United States. But the country’s elected leadership apparently believes that Iraq’s long-term welfare will depend on building a strong relationship with Iran as well as maintaining ties to the United States. As the Shiite Arab leaders who now hold sway in Baghdad see it, support from their co-religionists in Iran could be decisive in keeping Iraq from slipping further into chaos.
. That is clearly not the kind of stability Rumsfeld has in mind.
The Shiite leaders, though, already draw support from Iran as well as the United States in the face of the deep Sunni Arab resentment that has fed the insurgency here. Shiite political parties have historically had much stronger ties to Iran than to the United States, which, as they vividly recall, did nothing when Saddam Hussein ordered the slaughter of up to 150,000 Shiites who rebelled after the 1991 Gulf war.
The Shiite parties also assume that the American enterprise here will probably end as centuries of foreign adventures in this part of the world have – with the imperial country eventually withdrawing and leaving the region to sort out its own affairs.
Before the U.S.-led forces invaded, some analysts in Washington predicted that Iran would hold little appeal for Iraq’s 17 million Shiites because they are Arabs while the majority of Iran’s Shiites are Persians, historical enemies of the Arabs. That view failed to anticipate the depth of tension and violence that have now divided Iraq’s Arabs, largely along the lines of the two main branches of Islam, Sunni and Shiite. Still, U.S. officials hold to the belief that, in the end, Iraqi nationalism, which Shiites here share, will keep Iraq from being pulled into Iran’s orbit.
The reality, however, is that Iraqi leaders, with the encouragement of their Iranian counterparts, are trying to forge stronger bonds with Iran in many spheres, from reconstruction to the writing of the constitution.
“We’ve had good relations with the great Islamic Republic for more than two decades,” said Abdul-Aziz al-Hakim, a powerful Shiite politician, at a recent news conference in Basra, Iraq.
“Iran opens its doors and receives the Iraqis, and there is a huge number of Iraqis in Iran,” he added.
The Supreme Council’s biggest Shiite rival, the Dawa Islamic Party, is led by the Iraqi prime minister, Ibrahim al-Jaafari, who lived in exile in Iran before moving to London and who recently visited Iran.
Since then, he has been proclaiming the benefits of strengthening relations with Iran, despite the aversion to the idea by American officials and by Sunni Arabs, whom the United States wants included in the political process.
At a news conference on June 21, Jaafari said Iran would provide about $1 billion to build schools, hospitals and libraries in Iraq. He also said he and ministers met with clerics and politicians in Tehran and discussed border security and promoting religious tourism.
Under an agreement announced last month, Iraq and Iran plan to build an oil pipeline between Basra and Abadan in Iran, through which Iran would receive Iraqi crude oil to refine, in return for exporting an equal amount of oil on Iraq’s behalf through the Iranian port at Kharg Island.
All this amounts to a multipronged Iranian effort to reinforce the Shiite powers in Iraq. Many Iraqis distrust Iran because of the Iran-Iraq war, but they also realize that Iran has been the historical defender of the minority Shiite branch of Islam against the Sunni Arab.
Nazila Fathi contributed reporting from Tehran for this article.
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