BASRA, Iraq – The prominently displayed posters around Basra of Iran’s revolutionary leader, Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini, are only one reason why many residents are anxious about a growing Iranian influence in Iraq’s southernmost city.

Concerns are spreading that Shiite Muslim Iran, only 25 miles east of Basra, is providing intelligence to the city’s Shiite religious parties so they can carry out revenge attacks on political opponents. Residents say Iranian agents prowl Basra’s streets in apparent contradiction of Tehran’s oft-stated pledge to respect Iraq’s sovereignty. Iranian imprints are suspected on all kinds of social and political changes affecting the lives of Basrans.

The question of Iran’s influence here and elsewhere in Shiite-dominated parts of Iraq could become a chief concern of U.S. military strategists if tensions increase with Washington over allegations that Iran is developing nuclear weapons.

The potential for a confrontation escalated Monday when Iran announced that it had failed to reach a settlement with European negotiators aimed at halting the development of a uranium-processing facility capable of producing weapons-grade plutonium. Iran says the facility is for peaceful research purposes only.

Should Washington threaten action against Iranian nuclear facilities, academics say Iran could create significant problems in Iraq by mobilizing Shiite militants to move against U.S. troops here.

Iraqis say there is little doubt that, in such a confrontation, the sympathies of most Shiites would lie with Iran, despite their ambivalence toward their Persian neighbor.

“God forbid that it should ever happen. We would do our best to prevent it,” said Sayyed Hashim al-Mussawi, spokesman of the powerful Islamic Dawa party in Basra. In the event of a U.S.-Iranian confrontation, “the Iraqi people would make their outrage known. It would be a catastrophe for the entire region.”

He and others insisted that, after 25 years of warfare – including a 10-year war against Iran in which Basra was the focus of almost daily attacks – residents here want more than anything to live in peace and be left alone. So far, that hasn’t happened.

“This is always a sticky issue in Basra. The general assumption in the West is that all Shiites are pro-Iran. It’s not the case here, for sure,” said Shihab Ahmad, a University of Basra professor. At the same time, he added, Iran and its agents are making no secret of their presence. “I wouldn’t personally try to exonerate Iran on the issue of meddling.”

Critics of the religious parties elected to run Basra’s government say it is becoming difficult to distinguish between the lifestyle strictures being instituted here and those put in place by Ayatollah Khomeini after the 1979 revolution that established Iran as an Islamic republic. Shiite political leaders, however, deny that Iran has any role.

“There is no political interference or any other influence from Iran. Just because we share the Shiite faith does not mean we follow them,” said Sayyed Farat Ashara, director in Basra of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq.

“We reject any outside interference, whether it is from Iran or any other country,” said Sheikh Abu Zahra, the cultural director for the party of radical Shiite leader Muqtada al-Sadr. “Only Iraqis will decide their future.”

Many Basrans regard Iranian influence, like it or not, as a natural part of life here, given their shared Shiite heritage, close geographic relationship and strong social ties. Intermarriage among Basrans and Iranian families is common.

Most leaders of Basra’s main religious parties resided in Iran during the regime of ousted dictator Saddam Hussein. The supreme religious leader of Iraq’s Shiite majority, Ayatollah Ali al-Husseini al-Sistani, was born in Iran and spent years in exile there. So did Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari. The deputy prime minister, Ahmad Chalabi, was accused by the United States of providing intelligence to Tehran.

Iran’s influence “is not just something constructed by the West. It’s a reality,” said Juliana Daoud Yusuf, editor of Basra’s al-Manar newspaper. “We see Iran’s interference in all kinds of affairs: the closing of nightclubs, the disappearance of liquor stores. They’re taking advantage of the absence of government, and they’re doing it in a very planned way.”

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A 24-year-old grocery store clerk, who would identify himself only as Amar, said the Iranian presence is more pronounced in Basra than anywhere else in the country, “and it is going to get worse. In Baghdad, you can still drink a beer if you want. But here, you would be in big trouble if you were caught. I think they’re going to start patrolling here just like the Iranian religious police.”

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Not all Iranian involvement is viewed negatively by Iraqis, however. Many see Iran as an important counterbalance to the overwhelming influence of the United States and Britain since the 2003 invasion that toppled the dictatorship. Iran also has been a major aid donor and investor, especially in Basra, where Iran plans to upgrade a new cross-border railway link by next year.

Iran says the railroad will help boost its exports to Iraq to $1 billion annually by next March. Iran also plans to link Basra to its electrical grid to help ease the city’s constant power outages.

Still, the level of distrust among many Basrans remains high. Until it was looted after the 2003 invasion, one of Basra’s most prominent memorials was the Museum of the Martyrs of the Aggressive Persian Shelling, a showcase of local horrors resulting from Iranian artillery barrages directed against the city during the Iran-Iraq war.

“There is still very much anger toward Iran. They shelled us more than anywhere else in Iraq. And they refused to release our prisoners of war, even after the war was finished,” said Sajid Hamid al-Rikabi, assistant dean of the law school at the University of Basra.

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He cautioned against comparing the dominance of Shiite religious parties in Basra to the Iranian political system. Iraq’s religious parties have specifically rejected Iran’s system of Islamic jurisprudence, known as wilayat-e-faqih, because they regard it as incompatible with Iraq’s religious and ethnic mix of Sunnis, Christians and Kurds.

“The religious parties are trying very hard to show that Islam can be in balance with democracy,” he said. “They don’t necessarily see this as the case in the Iranian system.”

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At the same time, though, many Iraqis regard Iran as a more reliable long-term ally than the United States, al-Rikabi said.

“They see that the United States is here to achieve its own objectives, which might not be the same as Iraqis’ objectives,” he explained. “There will always be a distance between us and the United States because Iraqis don’t see it as one built on confidence. The relationship with Iran is a guaranteed one. We know the Iranians are going to stay with us.”



(c) 2005, The Dallas Morning News.

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Distributed by Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

AP-NY-08-03-05 0629EDT


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