The leaders of Iraq and Jordan warned yesterday that Iran is trying to influence the Iraqi elections scheduled for Jan. 30 to create an Islamic government that would dramatically shift the geopolitical balance between Shiite and Sunni Muslims in the Middle East.
Iraqi President Ghazi Yawar charged that Iran is coaching candidates and political parties sympathetic to Tehran and pouring "huge amounts of money" into the campaign to produce a Shiite-dominated government similar to Iran's.
Jordanian King Abdullah said that more than 1 million Iranians have crossed the 910-mile border into Iraq, many to vote in the election -- with the encouragement of the Iranian government. "I'm sure there's a lot of people, a lot of Iranians in there that will be used as part of the polls to influence the outcome," he said in an interview.
The king also charged that Iranians are paying salaries and providing welfare to unemployed Iraqis to build pro-Iranian public sentiment. Some Iranians, he added, have been trained by Iran's Revolutionary Guards and are members of militias that could fuel trouble in Iraq after the election.
"It is in Iran's vested interest to have an Islamic republic of Iraq . . . and therefore the involvement you're getting by the Iranians is to achieve a government that is very pro-Iran," Abdullah said.
If pro-Iran parties or politicians dominate the new Iraqi government, he said, a new "crescent" of dominant Shiite movements or governments stretching from Iran into Iraq, Syria and Lebanon could emerge, alter the traditional balance of power between the two main Islamic sects and pose new challenges to U.S. interests and allies.
"If Iraq goes Islamic republic, then, yes, we've opened ourselves to a whole set of new problems that will not be limited to the borders of Iraq. I'm looking at the glass half-full, and let's hope that's not the case. But strategic planners around the world have got to be aware that is a possibility," Abdullah added.
Iran and Iraq have Shiite majorities. But modern Iraq, formed after World War I, has been ruled by its Sunni minority. Syria is ruled by the minority Allawites, an offshoot of Shiism. Shiites are the largest of 17 recognized sects in Lebanon, and Hezbollah is a major Shiite political party, with the only active militia.
Abdullah, a prominent Sunni leader, said the creation of a new Shiite crescent would particularly destabilize Gulf countries with Shiite populations. "Even Saudi Arabia is not immune from this. It would be a major problem. And then that would propel the possibility of a Shiite-Sunni conflict even more, as you're taking it out of the borders of Iraq," the king said.
Iran has bonds with Iraq through their Shiite populations. Thousands of Iranians make pilgrimages to the holiest Shiite cities of Najaf and Karbala. Iraq's most prominent Shiite cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, is Iranian-born and speaks Arabic with a Persian accent. Yet Iran and Iraq fought a brutal eight-year war with more than a million casualties.
Iran has faced charges in the past of meddling in Iraq, but with the election approaching, Iraqi, U.S. and Arab officials have begun to make specific accusations and issue warnings about the potential impact.
"Unfortunately, time is proving, and the situation is proving, beyond any doubt that Iran has very obvious interference in our business -- a lot of money, a lot of intelligence activities and almost interfering daily in business and many [provincial] governates, especially in the southeast side of Iraq," Yawar said in an interview with Washington Post editors and reporters.
The interim Iraqi president, a Sunni leader from a tribe with Sunnis and Shiites, said Iraq's first democratic government must reject pressure to inject religion into politics. "We cannot have a sectarian or religious government," he said. "We really will not accept a religious state in Iraq. We haven't seen a model that succeeded."
The question of Iraq's political orientation -- secular or religious -- will come to a head when Iraq begins writing a new constitution next spring. Jordan's king said he had started to raise a "red flag" about the dangers of mixing church and state.
Abdullah said the United States had communicated its concern to Iran through third parties, although he predicted a showdown. "There's going to be some sort of clash at one point or another," he said. "We hope it's just a clash of words and politics and not a clash of civilizations or peoples on the ground. We will know a bit better how it will play out after the [Iraqi] election."
In Baghdad, interim Deputy Prime Minister Barham Salih warned neighboring governments that Iraq is losing patience with them for not doing more to stop the insurgency, which undermines the prospects for peaceful elections.
"There is evidence indicating that some groups in some neighboring countries are playing a direct role in the killing of the Iraqi people, and such a thing is not acceptable to us," Salih said. "We have reached a stage in which, if we do not see a real response from those countries, then we are obliged to take a decisive stance."
Violence continues to generate skepticism about whether legitimate elections can be held in two months. After talks with Iraqi Prime Minister Ayad Allawi, Russian President Vladimir Putin said he "cannot imagine" how elections can go forward.
But after meeting with President Bush on Monday, Yawar and Abdullah said they are committed to pressing fellow Sunnis to drop threats to boycott the elections and move quickly to register candidates.
The Jordanian monarch said sitting out the election would only hurt Sunnis. "My advice to the Sunnis in Iraq, and that I will make public, is to get engaged, get into the system and do the best that you can come January 30," he said. "If you don't and you lose out, then you only have yourselves to blame."
The Iraqi president said there is no point in delaying elections, as Sunni leaders have urged. "Extending the election date will just prolong our agony," he said. He predicted Sunnis will ultimately participate, adding that many of the same leaders agitating against the Jan. 30 date have begun preparing their own campaigns.
Yawar said he is putting together a balanced, "all-Iraqi list" of candidates that would cross sectarian lines, in apparent contrast to the Shiite-dominated candidate slate.
A civil engineer educated at George Washington University, he expressed hope that U.S. troops could begin withdrawing from Iraq by the end of 2005 if Iraqi authorities train enough of their own troops.
"When we have our security forces qualified and capable of taking the job, then we will start seeing the beginning of decreasing forces, and that's in hopefully a year's time," he said. But he would not indicate when he hoped the last U.S. soldiers would leave. Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld told reporters this week he expected the U.S. military to withdraw within four years.