Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, January 26, 2007; A01
BAGHDAD, Jan. 25 -- When Fadhil Abbas determined that his mother's astigmatism required surgery, they did not consider treatment in his home town of Najaf, in southern Iraq. Instead they joined a four-taxi convoy of ailing Iraqis headed to Iran.
For more than two weeks last fall, Abbas, his sister and his mother were treated to free hotels, trips to the zoo and religious shrines, and his mother's $1,300 eye surgery at a hospital in Tehran, all courtesy of the offices of Moqtada al-Sadr, Iraq's ascendant Shiite Muslim cleric. Abbas returned to Najaf glowing over the technical prowess of Iran.
"When you look at this hospital, it is like something imaginary -- you wouldn't believe such a hospital like this exists," said Abbas, a 22-year-old college student. "Iran wants to help the patients in Iraq. Other countries don't want to let Iraqis in."
The increasingly common arrangement for sick or wounded Iraqis to receive treatment in Iran is just one strand in a burgeoning relationship between these two Persian Gulf countries. Thousands of Iranian pilgrims visit the Shiite holy cities in southern Iraq each year. Iran exports electricity and refined oil products to Iraq, and Iraqi vendors sell Iranian-made cars, air coolers, plastics and the black flags, decorated with colorful script, that Shiites are flying this week to celebrate the religious holiday of Ashura. But when President Bush and top U.S. officials speak of Iran's role in Iraq, their focus is more limited. U.S. officials accuse Iranian security forces, particularly the al-Quds Brigade of the Revolutionary Guards, of funneling sophisticated explosives to Iraqi guerrillas.
"We will not allow hegemony of a hostile regime to have power over this area," U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Zalmay Khalilzad said this week.
But changing the "behavior" of the Iranian government, as Khalilzad proposes, collides with Iran's expanding influence in Iraq, which is built on deep cultural ties as well as personal and business relationships developed during the years that many leading Iraqi Shiite politicians spent in exile in Iran.
Iran has dispatched 56 diplomats to staff its embassy in Baghdad and consulates in Basra and Karbala. It maintains informal liaison offices in the Kurdish cities of Sulaymaniyah and Irbil, the latter of which was raided Jan. 11 by U.S. troops, who arrested five Iranians. Each day, Iran provides 1,000 tons of cooking gas, about 20 percent of the Iraqi demand, and 2 million liters of kerosene. Iran exports electricity through Iraq's Diyala province and plans to quadruple the amount with new projects, Iraqi officials say.
Iran has also extended a $1 billion line of credit to Iraq to help fund reconstruction and rebuilding. When Iraqi President Jalal Talabani and his delegation of ministers visited Iran in November, he asked for more help and said Iraq "would like to expand our relations in every field with the Islamic Republic of Iran."
"The economic power between the two countries, it's enormous," said Hassan Kazemi Qomi, Iran's ambassador to Iraq. "We can help them in technical issues and engineering. We have a lot of experience in building roads and airports."
Qomi works inside a stone embassy in a compound with lush gardens and spear-wielding statuary just outside the fortified Green Zone, the seat of U.S. power in Iraq. When he speaks of the Americans, he calls them "the others."
"As for our policy, it's clear and it's going forward. We are happy with the Iraqi government," Qomi said at a recent news conference. "The kidnapping of our diplomats will have no effect at all on our help and cooperation with the Iraqi side. . . . We are only at the first stages of this support."
Qomi said the presence of American troops in Iraq "has increased the instability, increased the killing of innocent people and inflamed the sectarian violence."
"If we want to establish security in Iraq, the Iraqi government should take security into its own hands," he said. "Unfortunately, the others don't want that to happen."
Caught between the United States and Iran is Hoshyar Zebari, Iraq's foreign minister. "I'm treading a very thin line," he said last week over tea in his office. Zebari says he believes Iran wants a stable government in Iraq, along with the departure of U.S. troops, but is worried that a full-scale civil war could spill over Iraq's borders.
Iran supports the two largest Shiite political parties, the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI) and the Dawa party of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, U.S. officials have said. But Iran also negotiates with Kurdish and Sunni politicians and sometimes bypasses the central government to forge agreements with Iraqi provinces, Zebari said.
"Historically that has been their attitude, to bet on every horse. And they have changed their support from one group to another," Zebari said.
Some analysts say the violence and instability in Iraq attract more Iranian involvement, not less, as Iran positions itself to be on the winning side of a sectarian war.
"The whole Gulf system is turned upside down, and everybody is trying to figure out how they situate themselves in it," said Ray Takeyh, an Iran expert at the Council on Foreign Relations, referring to traditional relationships in the Persian Gulf region. Iranian support is "part of the program of strengthening the Shia community to resist and expand its influence, and become a successful combatant in a civil war."
For the Iraqi government, it has been a frustrating strategy. "Instead of diversifying your support or aid to different groups, militias, political leaders, if you're sincere in your commitment to see this government succeed, why don't you give all this assistance and money and weapons and training directly to the government?" Zebari said.
Iran has driven a wedge between Iraq and the United States. Last month, when U.S. troops seized two Iranian officials inside the Baghdad compound of Abdul Aziz al-Hakim, the leader of SCIRI, the Iraqi government intervened and the United States freed them. After U.S. troops seized five more Iranian officials from the liaison office in Irbil, the Iraqi government again appealed for their release -- so far unsuccessfully -- saying the men worked in an approved office providing consular services.
In both cases, U.S. officials accused some of the Iranians of being operatives with the al-Quds Brigade, which the Americans say arms and trains terrorist groups outside Iran, including the Lebanese organization Hezbollah and Islamic Jihad, which is active in the Palestinian territories. Both the Iraqis and Iranians have asked the United States for proof of clandestine activities.
U.S. officials decided to escalate their tactics against Iran after public denunciations of Iran's alleged military activities, along with attempts to "harden" Iraq's security forces to repel Iranian influence, failed to produce satisfactory results, Khalilzad said. "We've come to the view that we need to do more than that, we need to go after their networks," he said.
During the rule of Saddam Hussein, who oppressed Iraq's Shiites and fought an eight-year war against Iran, Iraqi Shiite dissidents in exile, especially SCIRI and its armed wing, the Badr Brigade, found welcome help from Iranian security forces.
"We know what the relationship between SCIRI, Badr and the Iranian institutions were in those days. Now it's a different situation," Khalilzad said. The Iraqi government is no longer "an opposition movement in need of support from the security agencies of a neighboring state, so there is a need for adaptation in terms of what's appropriate in terms of a relationship."
Iraqi officials are sharply divided in their perceptions of Iran's intentions in Iraq. Hussein al-Falluji, a Sunni member of parliament, said Iranian influence exceeds that of the United States, but it is "hidden, and is heading toward targeting vital joints of the Iraqi state."
Mowaffak al-Rubaie, Iraq's national security adviser, said, "Iran is networking aggressively inside Iraq in every aspect of life, including the security aspect."
Mariam Rayis, a foreign affairs adviser to Maliki, dismissed as paranoia U.S. assertions about Iran's "dark involvement" in Iraq. "These neighbors can help us for a while until we can have new construction here," she said. "We have noticed that there is moral support from Iran."
Special correspondents Naseer Nouri in Baghdad and Saad Sarhan in Najaf and other Washington Post staff in Iraq contributed to this report.