- Associated Press - Tuesday, November 29, 2011

MANDALI, IraqIran’s presence is already visible in Iraq, from the droves of pilgrims at Shiite holy sites to the brands of yogurt and jams on grocery shelves.

But now Iraqis are bracing for a potential escalation of Persian influence as the U.S. military leaves at the end of the year.

It’s a natural step, most agree, for the only two Shiite Muslim-led governments in the Sunni-dominated Mideast to expand their relationship. Still, it’s a fine line for Iraq to walk, with even many in Iraq’s Shiite majority wary of infringement of their country’s sovereignty and afraid of being overrun by the Iranian theocracy.

From politics and weapons to pilgrims and consumer products, Iraqis have for years stood by as Iranian influence seeped in. It’s been galling for many still bitter over the destruction that Iran heaped on their homes during the eight-year war in the 1980s that left a half-million people dead.

“We hated the Iranians. And there are still bad feelings,” said Fouad Karim, a 36-year-old sheep trader in the northeast town of Mandali, about six miles from the Iranian border.

Iranian goods are displayed at a shop in Baghdad. Iran's presence is already visible in Iraq, from the pilgrims at Shiite holy sites to the brands of yogurt and jams on grocery shelves. (Associated Press)
Iranian goods are displayed at a shop in Baghdad. Iran’s presence is ... more >

The town was all but destroyed during the Iraq-Iran war, and travelers entering Mandali are greeted by a monument to a young woman killed by Iranian shelling at her own wedding in 1983.

“The government should not tolerate any Iranian interference, as our anger against them only gets worse when we hear about their deeds,” said Mr. Karim, a Shiite.

Top Iranian officials maintain they are only strengthening diplomatic and economic ties with Iraq, as they have sought to do since the 2003 ouster of Saddam Hussein.

U.S. officials, however, have long feared what they describe as Iranian meddling in Iraq — and its potential to sow unrest across the Mideast. Those worries were a chief driver of failed efforts to leave at least several thousand U.S. troops in Iraq beyond the Dec. 31 withdrawal deadline.

At least three Shiite militias backed by Iran ramped up attacks on U.S. troops in Iraq this year in a warning not to stay beyond the deadline. U.S., and Iraqi intelligence officials said Iran supplied the militiamen with weapons, training and millions of dollars in funding.

Those militias’ strength will no doubt give them influence in Iraq after the withdrawal.

Iran wants to make Iraq a weak state,” says Army Maj. Gen. Jeffrey S. Buchanan, the U.S military spokesman in Iraq. “Iran is feeling increasingly isolated, and one of the ways it can avoid isolation is by co-opting Iraq.”

During a recent trip to Baghdad, Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi described the neighborly relationship as “two branches belonging to one tree” and dismissed U.S. accusations of interference.

“Iraqis know better than anyone else how to run their country,” he said.

Michael Knights, a fellow at the Washington Institute for Near East Policy, says U.S. fears about Iran’s influence are largely “overblown.”

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