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Iran Backs Holding Iraqi Vote on Time

Times Staff Writers

Iranian Foreign Minister Kamal Kharrazi said Wednesday that his nation supported holding parliamentary elections in January in neighboring Iraq even if continued violence there prevented balloting in some areas.

“It won’t be more secure in the spring,” he said, in response to suggestions that the polling be delayed a few months until the country can be stabilized. “Elections have to be held on time.”

He acknowledged concerns of U.N. officials and others that some areas of Iraq -- especially the so-called Sunni Triangle north and west of Baghdad -- may still be too unstable for safe voting in January, but he said partial elections would be acceptable to Iran.

“It is only several cities that would not be able to vote, and even in those cities, they could find a way,” Kharrazi said in a separate interview Tuesday night. “This happens in many countries. Maybe they can join in the second round [of voting]. It all depends on the will of Iraq.”

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A democratically elected government, Kharrazi said, would be perceived as more legitimate than the interim administration chosen by the United States, the United Nations and a small group of Iraqi politicians. An elected government would be “crucial” to weakening the insurgency, he said.

Experts say Iran expects elections in Iraq to produce a government dominated by Shiite Muslims, the majority Islamic branch in both countries, especially if Sunni Muslims in areas beset by violence are unable to vote. Tehran is spreading its support among various groups, betting that any elected government would favor Iran over the U.S.

“They’re hedging their bets, not necessarily supporting any one group,” said Ray Takeyh, an Iran expert at the Council on Foreign Relations. “They’re handing out money to Shiites, to Kurds, even Sunnis. Their motives are not colored by ideology or religion so much as pragmatism. The just want to secure practical influence in a country where they haven’t had much influence in the past.”

Iran has provided millions of dollars to several political parties over the last year, including the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq -- which has close ties to Shiite Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani -- and the Islamic Dawa Party, U.S. and Iranian officials say. But Kharrazi said Wednesday that Iran had not been funding or arming rebel Shiite cleric Muqtada Sadr and his Al Mahdi militia, as U.S. officials have alleged.

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“We have not been guiding him, we have not been financing him, but we have been trying to make him moderate, to control him,” he told a group of American reporters Wednesday at the residence of the Iranian ambassador to the United Nations. He added that Sadr was responsive to pressure from Sistani to scale back armed resistance to the American presence in Iraq, but that the United States had created its own problems by confronting Sadr’s forces in the Shiite holy city of Najaf.

“It was a mistake by Americans to engage him; now he is much more popular,” Kharrazi said.

Takeyh said Iran didn’t want any leader to become too popular or Iraq to become too strong.

“They want a sympathetic government overseeing a weak and unstable country,” he said. “A fractious Iraq preoccupied with its own internal squabbles is unlikely to contest Iran for hegemony of the Persian Gulf.”

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Recognizing that Iran’s interests in Iraq may not coincide with those of the U.S., Washington is working to counter Tehran’s growing influence there. In an effort to even the playing field for moderate and secular parties that are not as well organized or financed as groups backed by Tehran, the Bush administration has allocated millions of dollars to support “all parties” as they prepare for the elections, U.S. officials say.

State Department spokesman Adam Ereli said this week that the U.S. had urged Iran to use its growing influence to stabilize Iraq, not undermine it.

“We think they need to use that influence to help support the program and agenda of the government of Iraq,” he said. “And to the extent that there are actions or activities that contribute to instability, contribute to terrorist activity -- that is of concern to us.”


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