Tehran's Influence Grows As Iraqis See Advantages

Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari, shown at a seminar in June, said last week that Iran's strategy in dealing with Iraqis has been
Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari, shown at a seminar in June, said last week that Iran's strategy in dealing with Iraqis has been "to bet on every horse. And they have changed their support from one group to another." (By Jason Decrow -- Associated Press)
By Joshua Partlow
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, January 26, 2007

BAGHDAD, Jan. 25 -- When Fadhil Abbas determined that his mother's astigmatism required surgery, they did not consider treatment in his home town of Najaf, in southern Iraq. Instead they joined a four-taxi convoy of ailing Iraqis headed to Iran.

For more than two weeks last fall, Abbas, his sister and his mother were treated to free hotels, trips to the zoo and religious shrines, and his mother's $1,300 eye surgery at a hospital in Tehran, all courtesy of the offices of Moqtada al-Sadr, Iraq's ascendant Shiite Muslim cleric. Abbas returned to Najaf glowing over the technical prowess of Iran.

"When you look at this hospital, it is like something imaginary -- you wouldn't believe such a hospital like this exists," said Abbas, a 22-year-old college student. "Iran wants to help the patients in Iraq. Other countries don't want to let Iraqis in."

The increasingly common arrangement for sick or wounded Iraqis to receive treatment in Iran is just one strand in a burgeoning relationship between these two Persian Gulf countries. Thousands of Iranian pilgrims visit the Shiite holy cities in southern Iraq each year. Iran exports electricity and refined oil products to Iraq, and Iraqi vendors sell Iranian-made cars, air coolers, plastics and the black flags, decorated with colorful script, that Shiites are flying this week to celebrate the religious holiday of Ashura. But when President Bush and top U.S. officials speak of Iran's role in Iraq, their focus is more limited. U.S. officials accuse Iranian security forces, particularly the al-Quds Brigade of the Revolutionary Guards, of funneling sophisticated explosives to Iraqi guerrillas.

"We will not allow hegemony of a hostile regime to have power over this area," U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Zalmay Khalilzad said this week.

But changing the "behavior" of the Iranian government, as Khalilzad proposes, collides with Iran's expanding influence in Iraq, which is built on deep cultural ties as well as personal and business relationships developed during the years that many leading Iraqi Shiite politicians spent in exile in Iran.

Iran has dispatched 56 diplomats to staff its embassy in Baghdad and consulates in Basra and Karbala. It maintains informal liaison offices in the Kurdish cities of Sulaymaniyah and Irbil, the latter of which was raided Jan. 11 by U.S. troops, who arrested five Iranians. Each day, Iran provides 1,000 tons of cooking gas, about 20 percent of the Iraqi demand, and 2 million liters of kerosene. Iran exports electricity through Iraq's Diyala province and plans to quadruple the amount with new projects, Iraqi officials say.

Iran has also extended a $1 billion line of credit to Iraq to help fund reconstruction and rebuilding. When Iraqi President Jalal Talabani and his delegation of ministers visited Iran in November, he asked for more help and said Iraq "would like to expand our relations in every field with the Islamic Republic of Iran."

"The economic power between the two countries, it's enormous," said Hassan Kazemi Qomi, Iran's ambassador to Iraq. "We can help them in technical issues and engineering. We have a lot of experience in building roads and airports."

Qomi works inside a stone embassy in a compound with lush gardens and spear-wielding statuary just outside the fortified Green Zone, the seat of U.S. power in Iraq. When he speaks of the Americans, he calls them "the others."

"As for our policy, it's clear and it's going forward. We are happy with the Iraqi government," Qomi said at a recent news conference. "The kidnapping of our diplomats will have no effect at all on our help and cooperation with the Iraqi side. . . . We are only at the first stages of this support."

Qomi said the presence of American troops in Iraq "has increased the instability, increased the killing of innocent people and inflamed the sectarian violence."

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