|What if Iraq taps pro-Iran leaders?
Sat Jan 1, 9:40 AM ET
By Cam Simpson Washington Bureau
The Bush administration, already facing a relentless insurgency in Iraq, is preparing to confront what could be an equally daunting political challenge--the possible emergence from the Jan. 30 election of a pro-Iranian government dominated by Shiite fundamentalists.
Despite warning Tehran for months, some administration officials and outside experts say little can be done to limit the political influence in Iraq of Iran, one of two remaining members of President Bush's so-called axis of evil along with North Korea.
U.S. officials say Iran has given strong support to the two leading Shiite political parties in the United Iraqi Alliance, the slate that most analysts expect to garner the greatest share of votes in the election for a new national government.
Tehran's support includes an estimated $20 million for the current election for candidates from those parties--the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq and the Islamic Dawa Party--according to a State Department official who spoke on the condition of anonymity.
The slate was formed at the initiative of Iraq's most influential Shiite religious leader, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, and public opinion polls consistently rate the parties' respective leaders, Abdul Aziz al-Hakim and Ibrahim al-Jaafari, two of Iraq's most popular politicians.
Such expected dominance at the polls, coupled with the widespread belief that many of Iraq's Sunni Muslims will not participate in the election, could spawn even greater violence by Sunni insurgents, who may gain more adherents if their longtime Shiite rivals assume power.
Until the U.S.-led invasion ousted Saddam Hussein's regime, Sunnis long held Iraq's levers of power, although they make up only about 20 percent of the population in comparison with the majority Shiites, who make up about 60 percent.
Signs of the danger were evident Monday, when a car bomb apparently aimed at al-Hakim left at least 14 others dead in Baghdad. Al-Hakim was not injured, but about 50 people were hurt in the latest in a string of attacks targeting Shiite leaders.
The strike coincidentally came on the same day that Iraq's most established Sunni political party announced its withdrawal from the Jan. 30 ballot.
Although an increase in strife after Shiite ascendancy would obviously affect the U.S., the potential longer-term implications of an Iranian-leaning government in Baghdad are also weighing heavily on some American policymakers.
While the U.S. spent years and millions of dollars backing Ahmad Chalabi's Iraqi National Congress in the hope of eventually shaping Iraq's post-Hussein future, Tehran did the same for al-Hakim and the Supreme Council under the guidance of Iran's hard-line Islamic Revolutionary Guard, according to U.S. officials.
$20 million comes with strings
The State Department official who spoke about the issue suggested the only significant question now is how close to Iran a new Iraqi government will lean. "When you pay for something, you expect to get something in return," the official said of Iran's $20 million.
But this official and others also pointed hopefully to evidence that most Iraqis, including Shiites, have a pronounced sense of nationalism and are uneasy about the prospect of a strong alliance between Tehran and Baghdad, which were enemies in a war fought from 1980 to 1988.
U.S. officials also take solace in the results of an October poll showing that about 45 percent of Iraqis ranked Iran first when asked which foreign country was most likely to cause upheaval in Iraq.
The U.S. came in second, with about 22 percent of the roughly 2,000 Iraqis questioned in face-to-face interviews making it their first choice.
Nonetheless, leading members of the Iraqi interim government, including President Ghazi al-Yawar and the chief of staff for Iraq's National Security Council, publicly fretted last month about excessive Iranian influence in Iraq's political process.
Since the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq 21 months ago, Bush and senior members of his administration have consistently and publicly warned Tehran to stay out of Iraq's affairs. But little concrete action has followed the warnings, as Iranian money, agents and influence have flowed into Iraq, U.S. officials have said.
Daniel Byman, a former Middle East analyst for the U.S. government who is now a professor at Georgetown University, said the U.S. is in a tight spot. It must balance Tehran's efforts to spread influence in Iraq against the Iranian regime's potential to do far worse, given its strong support of terrorist organizations, its history of exporting violence and the ease with which its agents can move into and around neighboring Iraq.
`Some very scary stuff'
The sight of Tehran "running all over Iraq and buying up politicians" represents "some very scary stuff from the U.S. perspective,"