Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Maliki concluded a three-day visit to Iran after meeting Monday with Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, who warned that the continued presence of U.S. troops was “the main obstacle on the way to progress and prosperity in Iraq.”
The session with Khamenei, Iran’s top religious and political authority, served to further highlight the delicate position of the Iraqi government -- caught between the U.S. and Iran, each seeking to pull Iraq out of the other’s sphere of influence.
U.S. officials have long accused Shiite Muslim Iran of playing a negative role in the affairs of its neighbor to the west, which has had a Shiite-run government of its own in the wake of the 2003 U.S.-led invasion that ousted Saddam Hussein.
Khamenei, however, said Iraq’s “most important problem” wasn’t the still-active Sunni Arab insurgency or the reining in of Shiite militias, but rather the continued presence of “occupying troops.”
Khamenei and other Iranian politicians have repeatedly urged Maliki’s government not to sign a status of forces agreement being negotiated with the United States. The agreement would provide a legal framework for the continued presence of U.S. troops in Iraq after the United Nations mandate expires at the end of this year.
Iran accuses the United States of seeking to formalize a permanent domination of Iraq through the status of forces pact.
Washington alleges that Tehran is working to destabilize Iraq by supplying weapons to Shiite militias, a charge the Iranians deny. Maliki’s government is caught in the middle.
“Iran is accusing America, and America is accusing Iran,” said Mahmoud Othman, a veteran Kurdish politician and lawmaker in Iraq. “Nobody would want to be in Maliki’s shoes right now.”
The Iraqi and Iranian defense ministers signed a memorandum of understanding during Maliki’s visit to boost defense cooperation. The seeming incompatibility of Iraq simultaneously signing defense pacts with Iran and the U.S. underscores Baghdad’s difficult position.
The Iraqi daily newspaper Al Mada, in a front-page editorial Monday, said Maliki was being “pulled in opposite directions . . . . The challenge for Iraqis is to handle two friends who are enemies.”
Maliki’s ties with Tehran concern U.S. officials, who seek to limit Iran’s regional ambitions. But Maliki, like many Iraqi Shiite politicians, spent time in exile in Iran during Hussein’s rule. That, combined with the vast shared border between Iraq and Iran, makes it necessary for Maliki to maintain good relations with his nation’s eastern neighbor.
“Iran could do a lot of negative things in Iraq if it wanted to,” Othman said.
Some members of a Shiite militia loyal to cleric Muqtada Sadr, the Mahdi Army, which recently fought U.S. and Iraqi troops in Baghdad and Basra, have acknowledged receiving arms from Iran. Othman said Iraqi troops had uncovered “a lot of new Iranian weapons” in the hands of the militia’s fighters. But Maliki’s government, Othman said, is “trying not to escalate” the issue and prefers to address its concerns quietly with Iranian officials.
Tehran fears that U.S. bases in Iraq permitted under an eventual status of forces agreement could be used to launch an attack on Iran. Maliki and other Iraqi officials have offered assurances to the contrary, but Iran has conducted a full-scale publicity campaign against the accord. Sadr, who is believed to be in Iran for several months, has organized protests against the security pact among his followers in Iraq.
In an interview broadcast Monday on Iranian television, Tehran’s ambassador to Baghdad, Hassan Kazemi-Qomi, said the security agreement with the U.S. would “be against the sovereignty and independence of Iraq.”
Some Iraqi politicians have bristled at the Iranian campaign, accusing Iran of meddling in Iraq’s domestic affairs.
“I don’t believe it is the right of Iran. . . . to speak about the things which are related to Iraqis,” said Ali Dabbagh, a senior Shiite politician. “If we wanted to give comments, we could give comments on many neighboring countries.”
The irony, Othman said, is that Iraq is in a unique position to play a mediating role in the struggle between the U.S. and Iran. But the policies and rhetoric of both President Bush and Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad render that scenario impossible for now, he said.
“With the next American administration and the next Iranian administration, maybe there will be some hope for that,” Othman said.
Times staff writer Ned Parker in Baghdad and special correspondent Ramin Mostaghim in Tehran contributed to this report.