The war of words between Tehran and Washington intensified Sunday, with Iran’s supreme leader crediting the “unified resistance” of the Iraqi people with having forced the U.S. military out of Iraq.
Ayatollah Ali Khamenei said the U.S. withdrawal would constitute “golden pages” in Iraq’s history, reported Iran’s official Islamic Republic News Agency.
“Despite the U.S. military and political presence in Iraq, and Washington’s pressures on the country, all Iraq people ... said, ‘No, to U.S.,’ ” Khamenei declared in a Tehran meeting with Massoud Barzani, president of Iraq’s Kurdish region.
President Obama has announced that all 39,000 remaining combat troops in Iraq will be withdrawn by Dec. 31. Washington sought to leave some troops behind, but Baghdad refused to bow to U.S. demands for legal immunity for any remaining combat forces.
The 2003 U.S.-led invasion of Iraq, ordered by then-President George W. Bush, ousted President Saddam Hussein, a secular Sunni Muslim and archenemy of the theocratic, Shiite-run Iran. Hussein’s fall paved the way for the rise in Baghdad of a Shiite-led power bloc with close ties to Iran.
The withdrawal from Iraq after almost nine years has now become a political issue in the United States.
Some Republicans and others have said the move opens the door to further meddling by neighboring Iran. The Obama administration denies that the withdrawal represents a geopolitical defeat and has issued several thinly veiled warnings to Iran against interfering in Iraq’s affairs.
“The message to Iran and everybody else that might have any ideas there is that the U.S. is going to have a presence in the region for a long time to come,” Defense Secretary Leon E. Panetta said last week.
But Panetta’s admonitions and other declarations by Washington have been greeted with ridicule in Tehran. The Iranian defense minister, Ahmad Vahidi, said Sunday that Panetta’s comments were an effort to conceal “U.S. desperation and its failure.”
Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton’s announcement last week that Washington would create a “virtual embassy” to reach out to Iranians was denounced by Iran’s parliamentary speaker, Ali Larijani, as “mistaking diplomacy with a toy.”
The escalating rhetoric over Iraq appears to reflect the heightened tensions between adversaries Iran and the U.S., which have been at ideological loggerheads since the 1979 Islamic Revolution overthrew the shah of Iran, a longtime U.S. ally.
This month, U.S. authorities linked Iran to an alleged assassination-for-hire plot to kill Saudi Arabia’s U.S. ambassador, with the help of Mexican drug hit men. Tehran has denied involvement in the alleged conspiracy and derided the charges as implausible. Washington is seeking European support for a new round of sanctions against Iran in response to the alleged plot.
The Obama administration has called for Iran’s close ally, Syrian President Bashar Assad, to step down after months of antigovernment demonstrations and a government crackdown there. Iran has stood by Assad and denounced what it calls foreign plotting against Syria.
Tehran and Washington have also clashed over Iran’s nuclear aims. Iran insists its nuclear program is for peaceful purposes and has denied Western charges that it is trying to develop a nuclear weapon.
Times staff writer McDonnell reported from Beirut and special correspondent Mostaghim from Tehran.