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.
With provincial elections looming early next year, Maliki is trying to position his party to compete in the south, analysts say.
If Maliki pushes the U.S.-Iraq security agreement through parliament without support from his Shiite partners, "the Iranians will turn his life into hell. He will have no chance of winning in the south," Attiyah, the political analyst, said.
Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has said the Iraqi people have a "duty" to resist the Americans. The Iranian parliament speaker, Ali Larijani, warned of "unpleasant impacts" if Iraq signs the deal. And a senior Iranian cleric with ties to Iraq's Shiites, Ayatollah Kadhim al-Husseini al-Haeri, has pronounced the accord "haram," or forbidden under Islam.
U.S. officials have fought back, warning Iraq that if there is no agreement, the American military may be forced to shut down its operations when a United Nations mandate expires at year's end. That could cause "losses of great significance" for Iraq's security, said Adm. Michael Mullen, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
As neighbors, Iran and Iraq have a natural interest in maintaining political and economic ties. Iran also has goals vital to its national interest: preventing the rise of another Sunni dictatorship in Iraq, and limiting the United States' ability to use Iraq as a launchpad for attacks, analysts say. The United States has not ruled out a military strike in Iran, which it labels a sponsor of terrorism.
Iran had little influence in Iraq until the U.S.-led invasion in 2003. Nervous about support for Iran's Islamic revolution, Hussein's government had banned Dawa and had executed thousands of Shiites suspected of belonging to it.
After Hussein's ouster, Iranians flocked to Shiite shrines in Iraq, and Iraqis suddenly had access to satellite dishes that brought news about their neighboring country. Shiite parties returned from exile to fill the power vacuum created when Hussein's Baath Party was outlawed, winning the U.S.-sponsored elections.
"Iran's primary mode of influence in Iraq is to maintain strong ties to friendly Iraqi political parties. It is entirely possible that in five years, Iran will have more influence in Baghdad than the United States," said a recent report by Col. Joseph Felter and Brian Fishman of the Combating Terrorism Center at the U.S. Military Academy at West Point.
The report criticized U.S. policymakers for concentrating on Iranian training and weapons shipments for Iraqi militias instead of Tehran's broader political efforts.
"The strategic focus on Iran's lethal aid to Iraqi militias -- at the expense of countering its overall power projection strategy -- may result in a major U.S. policy failure," the paper said.
Iran's influence with militant groups has made it a player in Iraqi affairs, analysts say. Last spring, for example, the Iranians brokered a cease-fire after the Iraqi military, with U.S. assistance, conducted an offensive in the southern city of Basra. At the time, the city was largely controlled by the followers of radical Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr.
"Maliki gained a lot of strength" after the offensive, Attiyah said. "But you have to notice, what happened in Basra could not have been achieved without Iranian help. It was not only American help."
The perception that Iran controls armed groups has had a chilling effect on politics, said the parliament member who spoke on the condition of anonymity. He favors the accord.
"Many members of parliament are afraid to announce their position" on the U.S.-security agreement, he said in an interview at a heavily guarded mansion in Baghdad. "They feel they may face revenge from the Iranian side, like assassinations."
Aside from Iran, there are other reasons for opposition to the accord. Some members of parliament are suspicious of a deal that has been hammered out behind closed doors. In Washington, Democrats in Congress also complain they have been kept in the dark, and objected to the Bush administration's contention that the accord does not need Senate approval.
The agreement gives Iraq greater control over military operations, and mandates that U.S. forces pull out of Iraqi cities by July 2009 and leave the country at the end of 2011, unless Iraq requests an extension.
It also lets Iraqi courts, with U.S. acquiescence, try American soldiers who commit serious crimes when they are off-duty and outside their bases.
Staff writers Karen DeYoung and Walter Pincus in Washington contributed to this report.