Tuesday, December 23, 2003

TEHRAN — The capture of Saddam Hussein has opened the door to closer ties between Iran and Iraq, with unpredictable consequences for both the Middle East and the United States.

Several members of the Iraqi Governing Council have visited Tehran in recent weeks, offering trade deals and even broaching the idea of a shared oil pipeline. Those same Shiite and Kurdish officials are expected to be strengthened by the fall of the Sunni Muslim dictator.

“The Americans view Iran as part of the ‘axis of evil, while we view Iran as a strategic partner,” said Mowaffak Rubaie, a Shiite member of the council, in an Arabic-language interview with Al Jazeera television last month.

“We want to establish tourist relations, exchange visits and have cultural, economic and security relations to consolidate the situation at the borders. We also want industrial relations, relations to coordinate our foreign policies.”

Juan Cole, a University of Michigan history professor and Middle East specialist, said the capture of Saddam “completes the marginalization of the Sunni Arabs.”

“Things seem to be firmly in the hands of the Shiites and the Kurds, and both sets of leaders are very pro-Iranian,” he said.

“The end result of removing and capturing Saddam may be a rapprochement of Baghdad and Tehran,” possibly at the expense of Americas other Arab allies, including Saudi Arabia, Qatar and Jordan.

The most visible manifestation of the new relationship has been a large-scale return of Iranian pilgrims to Shiite holy sites in the Iraqi cities of Najaf, Karbala, Baghdad and Samarra.

Behind the scenes, the two countries are quietly but quickly restoring political and economic ties that have been severed since Saddams army attacked Iran in 1980.

Iran sent a representative to the Governing Council just days after it was formed last summer, effectively becoming the first Muslim country to recognize the U.S.-backed government.

Earlier this month, in a move applauded by Iran, the council voted to oust from Iraq the Mujahideen Khalq, an Iraq-based Iranian guerrilla group opposed to Tehrans clerical regime.

Three of the most powerful figures on the council Shiite leader Abdul Aziz al-Hakim and Kurdish leaders Jalal Talabani and Massoud Barzani all received military backing and shelter from Iran during Saddams rule.

“To an extent, they trust the Islamic republic, and this is going to benefit the bilateral ties between the two countries,” said Amir Payvar, a political analyst for a Tehran consulting firm.

Iraqi politicians frequently visit Tehran, and many including Mr. al-Hakim keep offices here. Mr. Talabani, who shows off his fluent Farsi at press conferences, visited Iran last week. Before that, Iraqi Commerce Minister Ali Alawi promised in Tehran to explore a free-trade agreement with Iran and welcomed Iranian auto exports to Iraq.

Even Ahmed Chalabi, who is close to those Washington conservatives most hostile to Tehrans clerical leaders, maintains cordial relations with Iranian leaders and visited Tehran this month.

Iran and Iraq have also begun economic cooperation, especially in the energy sector. Theres talk of a pipeline between the oil-rich cities of Abadan in Iran and Basra in Iraq.

The two countries have also set up a committee to study linking the two countries oil, gas and electricity networks, ministry officials from both countries have said to reporters.

Iran and Iraq share deep historical and cultural bonds. In addition to large Kurdish minorities, which have long maintained cross-border ties, they are the only countries besides Bahrain with majority Shiite populations. Najaf, in Iraq, and Qom, in Iran, are the two great centers of Shiite scholarship.

“All of Iraqs great clerical leaders have been Iranian or studied in Iran,” said Mohsen Alviri, a historian at Tehrans Imam Sadeqh University.

“Theres long been a strong connection between Iran and Iraq through this network. During Saddams era, this relationship was cut. Now the groundwork for the rebuilding of this connection is developing.”

Animosities run deep, too, between Iraqs ethnic Arabs and Irans ethnic Persians, who have been quarreling for centuries. As many as 1 million Iraqi and Iranian men died during the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq war, including an estimated 20,000 Iranians killed by mustard or nerve gas.

But these days, all the talk is of reconciliation, and it comes not only from the politicians.

Hadi Zeinali, a 17-year-old Iranian whose father died of an Iraqi chemical gas attack during the war, said he made many Iraqi friends during a recent pilgrimage to Iraqs Shiite holy sites.

“Im angry that someone named Saddam Hussein took my father away from me,” he said. “Im not angry at the Iraqis. In fact, they are our Shiite Muslim brothers.”

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