- The Washington Times - Thursday, July 9, 2009

BAGHDAD | The street clashes and other political protests that followed Iran’s disputed presidential elections last month have dominated regional and world news for weeks but caused barely a ripple in Iran’s old rival, Iraq.

No statements have been issued by Iraqi political parties that got their start in exile in Iran during the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq war. Although as many as 2,000 Iranian religious pilgrims enter Iraq daily, there have been no demonstrations, like the sympathy protests that have taken place from New York to Dubai.

Dozens of Iraqi politicians, when asked for comment regarding the events in Tehran, have either declined to answer or said it was “an Iranian internal matter.” One politician, who asked not to be named, called the question “embarrassing” and stormed off.

One reason for the reticence is the influence the Iranian government wields on its western neighbor since the United States overthrew Iran’s nemesis Saddam Hussein six years ago. Many of the Shi’ite Muslim leaders of Iraq, including Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, spent time in exile in Iran while Saddam was in power.

“Many of us are afraid to talk about it at all, or to even say the word ‘Iran,’ ” said Mithal al-Alusi, a popular Sunni Muslim lawmaker who is known for speaking his mind. Mr. al-Alusi and other politicians who agreed to speak only off the record said key Iraqi political parties still receive substantial funding and “instruction” from Iran.

The reticence extends to powerful Shi’ite Muslim clerics in the city of Najaf, including Ayatollah Ali Sistani — the most revered Shi’ite spiritual leader. While Ayatollah Sistani objects to Iran’s theocratic system and may be personally pleased by the political tumult there, he maintains important offices in Iran that collect money for his charities and may be unwilling to jeopardize them.

American officials have long accused Iran of supporting elements of the Iraqi insurgency, but these accusations have been more subdued in recent months. Since the mass Iranian demonstrations erupted, there has been speculation that Tehran might “have its hands full” and that its involvement in Iraq might decrease as a result.

Late last month, however, Gen. Ray Odierno, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, said, “Iran is still supporting, funding, and training surrogates who operate inside of Iraq — flat out. They have not stopped, and I don’t think they will stop.”

He added that “indirect fire rounds” that have recently targeted Baghdad’s fortified Green Zone are being fired “by groups that have been trained by Iran — been funded by Iran.”

Iran denies that it supports militants in Iraq but may want to show it can cause trouble in Iraq to counteract any impression that it is weaker at home.

With the U.S. withdrawing combat forces from Iraqi cities and ceding other powers to the al-Maliki government, Iran also may gain more influence with Iraqi leaders, who are losing a U.S. buffer against Iranian demands.

Iranian officials, for example, have long demanded the release of three members of the elite Quds, or Jerusalem force of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards, who were arrested by the United States on Jan. 11, 2007, in the Kurdish city of Irbil.

Hassan Kazemi-Qomi, a Quds force officer who also serves as Iran’s ambassador in Iraq, told The Washington Times that the three — Abbass Jamie, Majid Ghaemi and Hussein Bagheri — are consular officials who were arrested illegally while performing routine duties.

Mr. Kazemi-Qomi said that the three had documents proving that their activities were in accordance with an agreement in effect from 1991 to 2003 between Iran and the autonomous Iraqi Kurdish government.

“They worked on issuing visas and other consular matters for ordinary people, patients seeking medical care, tourists and businessmen traveling from Kurdistan to Iran,” Mr. Kazemi-Qomi said in an e-mail relayed from an official in Tehran.

U.S. officials have hinted broadly that the three were involved in supporting anti-U.S. militants but no charges have been announced.

With the gradual transfer of authority for Iraqi security from the United States to Iraq, the decision on releasing the Iranians will soon pass to Baghdad.

Capt. William Powell, a spokesman for U.S. forces in Iraq, said that individuals “classified as high-threat third country nationals” have had their status reviewed by the Iraqi government and will “go before an Iraqi judge before the end of this year.”

The U.S. is continuing, however, to target Iranians thought to be meddling in Iraq. On July 2, the Treasury Department designated Abu Mahdi al-Muhandis, an adviser to the commander of the Quds force, as a terrorist and designated his Kata’ib Hizballah organization as a terrorist entity. The designation allows the U.S. to target the finances of Mr. al-Muhandis, who was a member of the Islamist Dawa party’s militant wing in the early 1990s when the group attacked Western targets in Kuwait.

The designation specifies that Mr. al-Muhandis helped move weapons such as sniper rifles and explosively formed penetrators from Iran to anti-government Iraqi militias, including the Mahdi Army of anti-U.S. cleric Muqtada al-Sadr.

Another ticklish issue for Iraq involves the Mujahedeen al-Khalq, an Iranian opposition group. Backed by Saddam, the organization fought Iran during the Iran-Iraq war; nearly 3,500 members still live at Camp Ashraf, a large compound in Diyala province near the Iranian border.

Several hundred have returned home with the help of the Red Cross but few foreign countries want to take in the remaining members. The group is labeled as terrorist by both Iran and the United States.

There is strong pressure from Tehran to have members repatriated to Iran, but Mujahedeen al-Khalq leaders fear torture or death if sent there. In the past, the U.S. officials held authority, but as the Iraqi government increasingly takes the lead in formulating policies, Baghdad will be on its own.

In toppling Saddam, some U.S. officials suggested that a democratic Iraq would influence Iran’s domestic politics. Now there is concern that if Iran succeeds in repressing pro-democracy protests, that will negatively influence Iraq’s tenuous democracy.

“Both the citizens and the government here are watching what is happening after the election in Iran, to see what both sides can get away with,” Mr. al-Alusi said. “It is very clear that the Prime Minister [al-Maliki] is attacking other parties before our election. If they cannot succeed there, if free will and freedom of speech do not win there, the same can happen here.”

Barbara Slavin and Eli Lake contributed to this report from Washington.

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