BAGHDAD, (AFP) - As the United States and Iraq approach a deal on the future US military presence in the country, Baghdad is trapped between Washington's demands and Tehran's fears about US influence in the region, politicians and analysts say.
Since the 2003 US-led invasion, and especially since Iraq's Shiite majority came to power three years ago, predominantly Shiite Iran has seen Iraq as a natural ally, and sought to influence it.
Iran, which shares the same Islamic beliefs and provided refuge for several senior Iraqi figures during the regime of Sunni dictator Saddam Hussein, wants to diminish the influence on Iraq of arch-foe the United States.
|A young Iraqi Shiite Muslim waves a national flag as he joins supporters of the movement of cleric Moqtada al-Sadr in an anti-US demonstration following Friday prayers in Baghdad's Sadr city
The Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) being negotiated between Washington and Baghdad since February will legally fix American troop withdrawal plan after a UN mandate expires on December 31.
This week the White House said the deal was more or less done, but the Iraqi cabinet decided to seek revisions, triggering concerns among top US military and political figures about the risks of not having a deal.
The arrangement is fiercely opposed by Iran, whose President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad on Thursday fired its latest salvo in a heated propaganda war between the arch foes. “The Americans have shown that they do not respect any agreement and, if their interests require it, they are ready to sacrifice their closest friends,”Ahmadinejad said.
“They do not distinguish among Shiites, Sunnis and Kurds. They want to prevent the creation of a strong and powerful Iraq, the better to pillage the country.”For its part, the United States has sharply criticised Iran for trying to undermine and derail the agreement that it sees as crucial to Iraq, which is still trying to extinguish an insurgency in the wake of the US invasion.
Pentagon spokesman Geoff Morrell said Wednesday that “Iranian meddling in Iraq takes on all forms.”The Iranians “have made their displeasure with this agreement known, and have tried to influence Iraqis in all -- in all manner of ways,” he said.
Last week General Raymond Odierno, the US commander in Iraq, told The Washington Post that Iran was working publicly and covertly to undermine the military pact, that will likely see US soldiers stay until 2011.
“We know that there are many relationships with people here for many years going back to when Saddam was in charge, and I think they're utilising those contacts to attempt to influence the outcome of the potential vote in the Council of Representatives (parliament),” Odierno added.
“There are many intelligence reports” that suggest Iranians are “coming in to pay off people to vote against it,” he said, though acknowledging he had no proof.
Iraqi government spokesman Ali al-Dabbagh called the comments inappropriate.
“These kinds of remarks are likely to tarnish the good relations between Iraq and the forces of the international coalition,” he said.
Science and Technology Minister Raid Jahid Fahmi said Baghdad had been walking a tightrope between Washington's demands and Iranian fears over the US.
“During the negotiations we have sought to calm the fears of our neighbours (the Iranians) and we have been very careful in discussions with the United States that the draft accord is not seen as a threat to anyone,” Fahmi said.
“Iran has acted on its national interests and believes that the American presence is a threat,” he said. “It therefore wants the departure of the troops and in all cases it does not want to leave the Americans in peace.”An Iraqi MP, who wished to remain anonymous, described how difficult it was for Iraqi politicians to navigate their different loyalties.
“This country (Iran) continues to stick its nose in our affairs and it is unacceptable,” the MP quoted a minister as saying during the cabinet meeting that sought changes to SOFA this week. “Stop accusing Iran of nonsense,” his colleague responded.
“No, my brother, it must be known,” replied the minister.
Another MP expressed his concerns more directly. “If we accept the SOFA without bargaining, or any discussion they (Iran) would kill us one after the other,” he told AFP.
At the same cabinet meeting yet another minister suggested controlling the incoming US mail for fear it might contain equipment perceived harmful for Iran, a government official told AFP on conditition of anonymity. Joost Hiltermann, Middle East director for the International Crisis Group, said Iran wanted to subvert US power in Iraq.
“Iran's objective, generally, is to thwart the US as it strives to rebuild Iraq and extricate its forces, lest Washington think it can use any success in Iraq as a basis for threatening Iran,” Hiltermann said.
“A delay in signing the security pact in particular would be a bloody nose for the Bush a