Dual Loyalties

My opinion on the people who shape our world

Thursday, January 27, 2005

Daily Times - Iran eyes Shia victory in Iraq, departure of US troops

Daily Times - Site Edition: "Iran eyes Shia victory in Iraq, departure of US troops

* Arab governments concerned about Shia emancipation
* Diplomat says Americans are looking for an exit strategy

TEHRAN: Iran’s clerical regime has good reason to look forward to Sunday’s Iraqi elections, with fellow Shias across the border expected to cruise to a comfortable win and the polls seen as a key step towards the departure of US forces.

As such, the landmark vote could represent the capping of a foreign policy success for the Islamic republic - even if Iraq’s Shias are far from likely to create a mirror image of the theocracy in Tehran. Since the US invasion, during which Iran declared its “active neutrality”, arch-enemy Saddam Hussein has been ousted at Washington’s expense and at the same time US troops have been sufficiently bogged down to think twice about attacking Iran.

Furthermore, sympathetic Shia Muslims are on the rise and for the first time in decades, Iran looks set to be on speaking terms with authorities in Baghdad. “One has to acknowledge that Iran has played it pretty well in Iraq,” said a senior Tehran-based Western diplomat. “It’s been a cynical but successful operation: let the Americans do the job of ousting Saddam and let them suffer for it.”

“Now Shias close to Iran are likely to win the elections, Arab governments in the region will have a headache and the Americans are looking for an exit strategy,” commented the diplomat, who asked not to be named.

Widely tipped as a winner in the polls is Shia political leader Abdel Aziz al-Hakim, the head of the Supreme Council of the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI) and who tops the Unified Iraqi Alliance, a 228-strong candidate list of Shiite parties running in the polls.

Hakim spent two decades in exile in Iran, where he built up SCIRI’s armed wing, the Badr Brigade. While most diplomats and analysts here believe that the popularly-held view that he is a “stooge” of Iran is grossly oversimplified, Hakim does have close contacts with the very highest levels of the Iranian regime. The Unified Iraqi Alliance also includes the Dawa group as well as the Iraqi National Congress of slick secularist Ahmad Chalabi.

Dawa’s head, the current vice president Ibrahim al-Jaafari, was also exiled in Iran, while Chalabi - once a Pentagon and CIA favourite - has since drifted closer to Tehran since falling out of favour with Washington. Iran has also had close dealings with the two main Kurdish groups, the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) of Massoud Barzani and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK) of Jalal Talabani.

With the Shias poised to reverse decades of rule by Iraq’s Sunni minority, Iran’s main fear was clearly voiced last week by supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei. “Two great dangers threaten the Iraqi elections, starting with fraud, at which the Americans are very good,” Khamenei said in hajj address. “The second threat... is a coup and the rise of another dictator,” he added, calling for Iraqis “to remain vigilant in these historic hours”.

Iraq’s Arab Sunnis, and even Arab governments, have been left crying foul.

Interim Iraqi defence minister Hazem Shaalan has described Iran as financing insurgents and being “the most dangerous enemy of Iraq and all Arabs”. According to Shaalan, the Shiite electoral list is simply “Iranian”.

And Interim Iraqi President Ghazi al-Yawar has also accused Iran of spending “a lot of money” in Iraq ahead of the polls, while Jordan’s King Abdullah II has accused Shia Iran of trying to influence the polls in a bid to create a Shia-dominated “crescent” extending from Iraq to Lebanon.

Iran has squarely dismissed the allegations, while at the same time pointing out its influence.

“Iran does not have a single soldier in Iraq, and if Iran has a natural influence in whatever country, such an influence does not mean interference,” Iranian Foriegn Minister Kamal Kharazi has said. As for the complaints of Shaalan, Iranian foreign ministry spokesman Hamid Reza Asefi merely laughed that he is “angry because he is one of the Iraqi officials who will not be staying in power after the elections.” afp"

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