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Growing Iranian influence in Iraq creates headache for US

Iraq's Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki got what he wanted from his visit to Iran - help from Shiite parties in securing a second term. But Washington and the world have reasons for concern about how this will affect Iraq.

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, right, shakes hands with Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki,

Handshakes like these aren't necessarily good news for the rest of the world

There was satisfaction all around as Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki concluded a trip to Iran that saw him meet with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad as well as influential Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr.

Al-Maliki secured political support that should allow him to break the deadlock that has existed since Iraq's indecisive election on March 7. In that vote, al-Maliki's Dawa Party emerged from that vote as the second-strongest force in Iraq's parliament, one vote behind the Iraqi List of al-Maliki's rival Ayad Allawi. The Iran-based al-Sadr's supporters, though, secured 40 seats in that election.

So with the support of al-Sadr, brokered by Iran's leadership, al-Maliki now has the inside track on a second term in office. In return, Tehran's influence in Baghdad looks set to rise.

"It was an Iranian achievement to bring al-Sadr and al-Maliki together, considering the personal tension between the two," Udo Steinbach, a professor emeritus who is one of Germany's leading Middle East experts, told Deutsche Welle.

Others say such a deal was necessary, if not inevitable.

"Since this spring, there's been a political stalemate in Iraq," said Henner Fuertig, director of the GIGA Institute of Middle East Studies in Hamburg. "Al-Maliki's dealings with Iran are an attempt to find a solution that's acceptable to all the Shiite parties."

It remains unclear when a new government could be formed and what changes might result, but there are trends emerging in Iraq's relationship with Iran. And some of them are disturbing.

Growing influence

Supporters of anti-American radical cleric Muqtada al-Sadr chant anti-US slogans

Al-Sadr supporters in Iraq have called for the US rto leave

The US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003 had the unwanted consequence, from Washington's perspective, of increasing Iran's clout in that country since both nations have a Shiite majority.

"Since the fall of Saddam Hussein, Iranian influence in Iraq has been growing," Fuertig told Deutsche Welle. "Iran is, after the US, the most influential foreign country in Iraq, so we can't talk about a fully new development."

But that does not mean that Tehran can call all the shots in Baghdad.

"Iran's room to maneuver is not unlimited," Steinbach said. "Iran can't allow the impression to arise that it is playing kingmaker in Baghdad, and a confessionalist Shiite government would attract the ire of Iraq's leading clergymen, who tend to be apolitical."

Iran's Supreme Leader Ayatollah Khamanei used the occasion of al-Maliki's visit to repeat calls for the US to leave Iraq. And what's perhaps more troublesome for Washington is that the Iran-brokered deal isn't likely to go down well with minority Sunnis in Iraq. This could reignite the flames of sectarian violence.

Militia desertions

An Iraqi member of the Freedom Fighters, former insurgents who have joined forces with the U.S.

Sunni militias are increasingly disgruntled

On Monday, the AFP news agency reported that large numbers of the Sunni Arab militias, which have been credited for helping ease the violence in Iraq in recent years, were turning away from the government and going back to al-Qaeda.

"I estimate 15 percent of the 14,500 Sahwa (Awakening) fighters in Diyala have rallied to al-Qaeda," the militia's commander for the province's western sector, Khalil al-Karkhi, told AFP.

That sentiment was echoed by other Iraqi militia commanders. And German experts concur that the danger of a renewed civil war in Iraq is very real.

"The US has always been able to deal well with al-Maliki, in part because he's such a calculable politician," said Fuertig. "The problem would be, if the Sunni minority were driven underground and Sunni fighters began cooperating once again with al-Qaeda."

Others say that is what, in fact, is already taking place.

"The long interval between the election and the formation of a new government, together with perception of al-Maliki as Iran's man and someone who is desperate to hold on to power, has led to a renewed flaring up of violence," Steinbach said.

That's not a welcome scenario in Washington, especially as the US prepares to pull out its military forces from Iraq by the end of 2011.

Impotent America?

A column of US Army armored vehicles cross the border from Iraq into Kuwait

US forces are gradually leaving Iraq

The United States government has tried to downplay the significance of al-Maliki's visit.

"We understand that Iran and Iraq are neighbors," US State Department spokesman PJ Crowley told reporters on Monday. "They have to have a relationship. But we certainly think that Iran can be a better neighbor by respecting Iraqi sovereignty and ending its support to those who use violence in Iraq."

But others say the US has no choice other than to take a relaxed attitude to Iraq's dealings with one of America's foremost enemies.

"America no longer has that much influence - they're almost powerless on Iran questions," Steinbach said. "The fact that al-Maliki would turn for help to Tehran instead of to a US ally like Saudi Arabia speaks volumes about the vacuum the US has left behind as a power broker."

And the experts don't see many positive scenarios for the future.

"It doesn't take much of a fantasy to imagine that there will be fresh unrest and new tensions if the minority Sunnis feel they're being increasingly marginalized," Fuertig said.

In the short term, October 18, 2010 may be known as the day on which al-Maliki, with Iranian help, broke through a crippling political stalemate. But in the long term, it could also go down in history as the day on which the disagreements between Iraq's Shiites and Sunnis were fatally reinflamed.

Author: Jefferson Chase
Editor: Rob Mudge

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