Thousands of signs can be seen depicting Iran’s supreme leader gently smiling on a population once mobilized against the Islamic republic in eight years of war.
The campaign underscores widespread doubts about just how independent Iraq and its majority Shiite Muslim population can remain from its eastern neighbor, the region’s Shiite heavyweight, now that U.S. troops have left the country.
The posters of Grand Ayatollah Ali Khamenei first appeared in at least six Shiite neighborhoods in Baghdad and across Iraq’s Shiite-dominated south in August as part of an annual pro-Palestinian observance started years ago by Iran. They have conspicuously remained up since then.
“When I see these pictures, I feel I am in Tehran, not Baghdad,” said Asim Salman, 44, a Shiite and owner of a Baghdad cafe. “Authorities must remove these posters, which make us angry.”
In Basra, located 340 miles south of the capital, the pictures hang near donation boxes decorated with scripts in both countries’ languages — Arabic and Farsi.
A senior official in Baghdad’s local government said municipal workers fear retribution from Shiite militias loyal to Iran in if they take them down. He spoke on the condition of anonymity out of concerns for his safety.
One such militia, Asaib Ahl al-Haq, even boasted that it launched the poster campaign, part of a trend that’s chipping away at nearly a decade’s worth of U.S.-led efforts to bring a Western-style democracy here.
Economic, religious ties
Sheik Ali al-Zaidi, a senior official in the militia, said it distributed an estimated 20,000 posters of Ayatollah Khamenei across Iraq. He said the ayatollah “enjoys public support all over the world” including Iraq, where he “is hailed as a political and religious leader.”
Asaib Ahl al-Haq, or Band of the People of Righteousness, carried out deadly attacks against U.S. troops before their withdrawal last year. This month, the group threatened U.S. interests in Iraq as part of the backlash over an Internet film mocking the Prophet Muhammad.
Iraqi and U.S. intelligence officials have estimated that Iran sends the militia about $5 million in cash and weapons each month. The officials believe there are fewer than 1,000 Asaib Ahl al-Haq militiamen, and that their leaders live in Iran.
Religious ties also have been renewed, with thousands of Iranian pilgrims visiting holy Shiite sites in Iraq daily, including in Najaf, where Iranian rials are as common a currency as Iraqi dinars, and Farsi is easily understood.
Increasing Shiite sway
Tehran is widely believed to be lobbying for a member of its ruling theocracy, Grand Ayatollah Mahmoud Hashemi Shahroudi, to succeed Iraq’s 81-year-old Shiite spiritual leader, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani.
Tehran has not been shy about wielding its influence. It was at Iran’s urging that hard-line Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr grudgingly threw his political support behind longtime foe Nouri al-Maliki, allowing him to remain prime minister in 2010 after falling short in national elections.
In return, Mr. Maliki last year all but ignored Iranian military incursions on Kurdish lands in northern Iraq.
The government also has delayed, and in Mr. al-Sadr’s case, quashed, arrest warrants on militants backed by Iranian forces and financiers.
Still, even some Iraqi Shiites, such as the cleric, Mr. al-Sadr, and the cafe owner, Mr. Salman, advocate retaining strong Iraqi nationalism and their Arab identity instead of becoming a Persian outpost.
Iraqi government spokesman Ali al-Dabbagh condemned the Khamenei posters, and said they could add to the already-strained political unrest in the country.
But he said the federal government is powerless to remove them.
“These posters are adding a new dispute in Iraq’s politics and they might lead to a negative impact,” Mr. al-Dabbagh said. “The local governments should deal with such situations.”
Sunnis were less diplomatic in their assessment.
Raad Abdul-Rahman, a government worker, said the posters prove that Iraq is becoming “a total Iranian stooge.”
“In the past, we used to encounter the pictures of the Arab dictator Saddam,” Mr. Abdul-Rahman said, referring to the posters and statues of the former president that used to be ubiquitous across Baghdad and the rest of the country. “But now pictures of the Persian dictator are taking over.”