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Maliki meets with Iranian leaders in Tehran

By Thomas Erdbrink and Leila Fadel
Monday, October 18, 2010; 9:11 PM

TEHRAN -- Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki on Monday met with senior Iranian leaders here, as Iran's vision for the next Iraqi government seems to be gaining more traction.

Shiite Iran has played a crucial role in Iraqi politics since the 2003 U.S.-led invasion toppled its nemesis, the late dictator Saddam Hussein. Political leaders in Iran this month helped broker an alliance between Maliki and Shiite Iraqi cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, who resides in Iran, that made Maliki the front-runner for the premiership after more than seven months of inconclusive negotiations.

The U.S. had been quietly lobbying for Maliki to remain in power, but the backing by Sadr, who staunchly opposes the American presence in Iraq, set off alarms in Washington. While American officials are working behind the scenes to encourage a coalition that represents Iraq's complex ethnic and religious mix, they are discouraging a substantive role for the Sadrists in the next government.

Although the U.S. and Iran appear to be backing the same candidate in Iraq, they have different visions of the government they would like to see.

Iran favors a religious Shiite-dominated government that is backed by Kurds, with token Sunni Arab representation. By contrast, U.S. officials are trying to forge a power-sharing deal between Maliki and his biggest rival, secular Shiite Ayad Allawi -- a prospect that now seems unlikely.

"The Iranian policy is quite aggressive and detailed, and they speak to everybody, probably except us, to create an environment that suits their purposes," Allawi said in an interview Monday, adding that he worries that Iran is a destabilizing power that will weaken Iraq to ensure its own border security. Iraq and Iran had a bloody eight-year war in the 1980s.

"One of the very constructive roles that the Americans could play with the international community is to prevent and shelter the political process in Iraq from any interferences from outside powers, including Iranian intervention," Allawi said.

Allawi's Iraqiya bloc, largely backed by Sunni Arabs and secular Iraqis, won the most seats in the new parliament but has been unable to form a government. While Iran has publicly called for Sunni Arab representation in a future Iraqi government, it opposes an Allawi-led government.

U.S. Ambassador to Iraq James F. Jeffrey and the top U.S. military commander in the country, Gen. Lloyd J. Austin III, met with Allawi last week to express anxiety over the stalled negotiations between Maliki and Allawi.

Allawi, who has been criticized for spending too much time outside Iraq during a crucial period, said his frequent trips to neighboring Arab countries were designed to fend of negative Iranian intervention.

"If a government is formed on the sectarian issue . . . the Iraqi people would lose faith in democracy and lose faith in the ballot boxes," Allawi said, suggesting voters would react angrily and possibly violently if the new government is dominated by religious Shiites.

Maliki's visit to Iran was a key stop in a regional tour aimed at bolstering his chances of securing a second term. He earlier visited Syria and Jordan and is expected to visit Egypt and Turkey.

Iranian state television showed Maliki meeting with Iranian Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. Both leaders voiced support for closer bilateral ties and a quick resolution to the stalemate.

In the clearest indication that Iran supports Maliki's bid to stay in power, deputy Foreign Minister Mohammad Reza Ra'uf Sheibani called the acting prime minister "one of the suitable choices" to lead the next government.

In a statement, the prime minister's office said Maliki thanked Khamenei for "extinguishing the fire of sectarian strife and the return of cohesion and brotherhood among the sons of the Iraqi people."

U.S. officials and many Iraqis accuse Iran of having provided weapons and training for Shiite militiamen who played a major role in the war between Sunnis and Shiites in Iraq that ebbed in 2007.

Khamenei blamed the U.S. for the continued insecurity in Iraq. "May God Almighty rid Iraq of the evil of America so that the problems of the people of this country will be solved," he said, according to his Web site.

Maliki also traveled to Qom -- a Shiite Islamic theological center -- to meet with Sadr, who has been studying there since 2007, Maliki aides and Sadrists officials in Iraq said. The meeting was the first in years between the two leaders, and could mark an attempt by Maliki to solidify their new alliance. Sadr's followers helped Maliki rise to power in 2006, but Maliki later ordered offensives against the movement's militant wing, the Mahdi Army.

fadell@washpost.com Fadell reported from Baghdad.

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