Iraq Security Pact Highlights Battle Between U.S., Iran

Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has not openly backed the deal.
Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has not openly backed the deal. (Wathiq Khuzaie - AP)
By Mary Beth Sheridan
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, October 28, 2008

BAGHDAD, Oct. 27 -- A deal to authorize the presence of American forces in Iraq beyond 2008 is forcing Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to choose between two influential powers in this country: the United States and Iran.

U.S. officials had hoped Iraq would quickly approve the accord put before the cabinet this month, which would give 150,000 American troops legal authority to remain in Iraq after Dec. 31. But Iraqi political leaders have balked. Maliki has not openly supported the agreement forged by his negotiating team.

As the U.S. ponders withdrawal, it is clear that American political capital in Iraq is waning as Iran's grows. Maliki "is in a dilemma. He cannot antagonize the Iranians, he cannot antagonize the Americans," said Ghassan al-Attiyah, a prominent Iraqi intellectual and political analyst based at the Iraq Foundation for Development and Democracy in London.

Gen. Ray Odierno, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, has accused Iran of conducting what he called a covert and overt campaign to torpedo the agreement, including attempting to bribe Iraqi lawmakers. The allegation caused a furor in Iraq. But Iraqi officials also say Iran is trying to discourage the accord -- although in subtler ways than sending envoys with bags of cash.

"The Iranian objective is to try to create a problematic atmosphere between Iraq and the United States," said Mohammed al-Haj Hamoud, the chief Iraqi negotiator on the status-of-forces accord. He said the Iranians "have their people who can do their job on their behalf," referring to Iraqis whom he declined to identify.

One of the main sources of Iran's influence here is its longtime relationship with Shiite parties that came to power after the collapse of Saddam Hussein's Sunni-dominated government, analysts say. Iraq and Iran have Shiite majorities.

Iran has especially close ties with one of Maliki's coalition partners, the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq, or ISCI, which was formed in Iran by Iraqi Shiite exiles. Its armed wing was trained by Iran, and fought on that country's side during the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s. Until last year, the party accepted Iran's top ayatollah as its leader.

Supporters of the Islamic Supreme Council have been vocal in raising objections to the U.S.-Iraq accord.

Maliki's Dawa party shares the goal of establishing a religious state, but is regarded as somewhat less pro-Iranian. It is small, though, with only 15 seats in the 275-member parliament.

"Maliki realizes that, without the support of ISCI, he cannot continue in power," said a secular Shiite member of parliament who spoke on the condition of anonymity in order to be frank.

Iranian officials have denied U.S. accusations that their government is meddling in Iraq's affairs and arming its militias. They charge the Bush administration with using Tehran as a scapegoat for what they call failed American policies in Iraq. Iran's embassy in Baghdad did not respond to a request for comment for this article.

In the Shiite heartland of southern Iraq, Iran has strong commercial ties and relations with officials who worked with the Islamic Supreme Council and its militia when they were in exile.

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