BAGHDAD - Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki concluded a three-day visit to Iran after meeting yesterday with Ayatollah Ali Khameni, who warned that the continued presence of U.S. troops in Iraq is "the main obstacle on the way to progress and prosperity in Iraq."
The session with Khameni, Iran's top religious and political authority, served to further highlight the delicate position of the Iraqi government, caught between the United States and Iran, each seeking to pull Iraq out of the other's sphere of influence.
U.S. officials have long accused Shiite Muslim-dominated Iran of playing a negative role in the affairs of its neighbor to the west, which has had a Shiite-run government since the 2003 U.S.-led invasion that ousted Saddam Hussein. Some members of a Shiite militia, the Mahdi Army, which recently fought U.S. and Iraqi troops in Baghdad and Basra, have acknowledged receiving Iranian weapons.
Khameni said Iraq's "most important problem" isn't the Sunni insurgency or reining in Shiite Muslim militias, but rather the continued presence of "occupying troops." He and other Iranian politicians have repeatedly urged al-Maliki's government not to sign a security agreement being negotiated with the U.S. The agreement would provide a legal framework for the continued presence of U.S. troops in Iraq after a U.N. mandate expires at the end of this year.
Iran accuses the United States of seeking to formalize its permanent domination of Iraq through the security pact. The United States says Iran is working to destabilize Iraq by supplying weapons to Shiite militias.
"Iran is accusing America, and America is accusing Iran," said Mahmoud Othman, a veteran Kurdish politician in Iraq. "Nobody would want to be in Maliki's shoes right now."
The Iraqi and Iranian ministers of defense signed a memorandum of understanding during al-Maliki's visit to boost defense cooperation. The seeming incompatibility of Iraq's signing defense pacts with both Iran and the United States underscores Baghdad's difficult position.
The Iraqi daily newspaper Al Mada, in a front-page editorial published yesterday, said al-Maliki is being "pulled in opposite directions ... the challenge for Iraqis is to handle two friends who are enemies."
Al- Maliki's growing ties with Tehran concern U.S. officials, who seek to limit Iran's regional ambitions. But al-Maliki, like many Iraqi Shiite politicians, spent time in exile in Shiite Iran during the reign of Saddam Hussein and his Sunni-dominated government. That and the long Iraq-Iran border make it necessary for al-Maliki to maintain good relations with his nation's eastern neighbor.
"Iran could do a lot of negative things in Iraq if it wanted to," Othman said.
Iraqi troops have uncovered "a lot of new Iranian weapons" in the hands of Mahdi Army fighters, he said, but al-Maliki's government is "trying not to escalate" the issue and prefers to address its concerns quietly with Iranian officials.
Tehran fears that the U.S. bases in Iraq that would be permitted under the security agreement would be used one day to launch an attack on Iran. Al-Maliki and other Iraqi officials have offered assurances to the contrary, but Iran has conducted a full-scale publicity campaign against the agreement.
Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, who is thought to have been in Iran for several months, and has organized protests against the agremeent among his followers.
In an interview broadcast yesterday on Iranian television, Tehran's ambassador to Baghdad, Kazem Qomi, said the security agreement "will be against the sovereignty and independence of Iraq."
Ashraf Khalil writes for the Los Angeles Times.