Hazim Shalan, Iraq's defense minister, charged in an interview that Iran has taken over Iraqi border positions, sent spies and saboteurs into the country and infiltrated the new government -- including his own ministry. Iran remains "the first enemy of Iraq," he declared.
Shalan's comments were the clearest sign the new government is concerned that the country's open borders are being exploited by old enemies, turning Iraq into a battleground for Middle Eastern opponents of the United States.
"I've seen clear interference in Iraqi issues by Iran," Shalan said Saturday. "Iran interferes in order to kill democracy."
Shalan accused Iran of supporting "terrorism and bringing enemies into Iraq." Spreading out a hand-drawn map on his desk in the Defense Ministry, an ornate former government building secluded in the former Green Zone, Shalan pointed out what he said were numerous Iraqi border positions that Iran has taken over.
Shalan said that former fighters from Afghanistan have been caught in Iraq and that they have admitted receiving help from Iranian security forces. A Sudanese man with Iranian intelligence contacts was caught in April with a "very powerful poison," Shalan said, and planned to contaminate drinking water in Diwaniyah, 100 miles south of Baghdad. Two other people who were "working with Iranian intelligence" were seized in northeastern Iraq three weeks ago, he said.
Shalan bluntly warned Iran: "We can send the death to Tehran's streets, like they do to us. But we can't do it if we are a democracy. But if my people say do it now, I will do it."
Iraq and Iran fought a war from 1980 to 1988 in which about 1 million people were killed. The war touched the lives of vast numbers of Iraqis, and many still harbor deep suspicions about Iran. The government of interim Prime Minister Ayad Allawi, however, has talked about restoring ties with Tehran.
Officials at the Iranian Embassy in Baghdad, a palm tree-lined compound of brown stone buildings, declined to comment on Shalan's remarks.
Iraqi Deputy Foreign Minister Labeed Abbawi, using softer language, said, "We do have troubles with neighboring countries in general."
"They see an American army on their doorstep. This raises a lot of apprehension with them," Abbawi said. The authoritarian governments are worried that a democratic and pluralistic Iraq could foment unrest in their own countries, he said, and some of those countries want to continue the attacks against the United States to keep the Americans on the defensive.
"With our borders wide open, so many of these organizations and people who have their own ends see Iraq as a good stage for this battle," Abbawi said in an interview Sunday. "They are coming from Iran, from Syria, Jordan and Saudi Arabia. We don't accuse the governments, but we think they are not doing enough at the borders to prevent infiltration."
Abbawi said that "there might be some religious elements" in Iran sending recruits to Iraq and that he "wouldn't be surprised if there is an intelligence component here. A lot of countries are sending spies."
The influence of Iran, which is predominantly Shiite Muslim, on Iraqi Shiites, who make up an estimated 60 percent of the population, has long been of concern to the United States. But Shiites in Iraq have remained relatively quiet during the transition of power, patient to see how their new government emerges. The exception has been Moqtada Sadr, a young cleric based in Najaf, whose Mahdi Army militia fought a two-month pitched battle with U.S. forces and who remains a fierce critic of the U.S. presence.
Allawi is currently on a trip to neighboring Arab countries, in part to try to persuade them to seal their borders and reduce the number of foreigners taking part in the violence, including car bombings and ambushes, across Iraq. Allawi has visited Jordan, Egypt, Syria and Lebanon, and was headed this week to the Persian Gulf states. In each of the border states, Allawi has appealed for tougher border controls. He has said he would like to establish good relations with Iran.
Although Allawi is an interim prime minister, with elections scheduled for next January, he has used this trip to try to establish his -- and his government's -- credentials in the Arab world. He won promises of assistance in Jordan and Egypt. Syria, which had long harbored opponents to Saddam Hussein's government, promised to help "achieve security and stability in Iraq," and Allawi promised restoration of diplomatic ties.