Iraq edges closer to Iran, with or without the U.S.

By Louise Roug and Borzou Daragahi

Los Angeles Times

January 16, 2007

BAGHDAD — The Iraqi government is moving to solidify relations with Iran, even as the United States turns up the rhetorical heat and bolsters its military forces to confront Tehran's influence in Iraq.

Iraq's foreign minister, responding to a U.S. raid on an Iranian office in Irbil in northern Iraq last week, said Monday that the government intended to transform similar Iranian agencies into consulates. The minister, Hoshyar Zebari, also said the government planned to negotiate more border entry points with Iran.

The U.S. military is still holding five Iranians detained in Thursday's raid. Army Gen. George W. Casey Jr., the commander of U.S. forces in Iraq, said records seized in the raid and statements made by the detainees showed that at least some of them worked for Iran's intelligence service.

"I don't think there is any disagreement on the fact that these folks that we have captured are foreign intelligence agents in this country, working with Iraqis to destabilize Iraq and target coalition forces that are here at Iraq's request," Casey said Monday.

Zalmay Khalilzad, the U.S. ambassador to Iraq, added, "We are going after their networks in Iraq."

Iraqis, who have echoed Tehran's calls for the U.S. to release the five men, say the three-way standoff that has ensued reveals more about American meddling in Iraqi affairs than about Iranian influence.

"We, as Iraqis, have our own interest," Zebari said in an interview with The Times. "We are bound by geographic destiny to live with" Iran, adding that the Iraqi government wanted "to engage them constructively."

Zebari's comments reinforced the growing differences between the Iraqi government's approach and that of the Bush administration, which has rejected calls by the nonpartisan Iraq Study Group to open talks with Iran and Syria.

Administration officials accuse Iran of sowing anarchy and violence in the region.

Zebari's remarks came two days after Iraq and Iran announced a security agreement. "Terrorism threatens not only Iraq but all the regional countries," Iranian radio reported Sherwan Waili, Iraq's national security minister, as saying.

The overtures to Tehran also followed Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Maliki's appointment last week of a security commander for Baghdad over the objections of U.S. officials, who favored another candidate.

American officials oppose the presence in Iraq of Iranian officials and members of the Revolutionary Guard, which is controlled by religious hard-liners in Iran. Washington and Tehran have been at odds for decades and are in a standoff over Iran's nuclear ambitions.

But to Iraq, Iran is its biggest trading partner and a source of tourist revenue, mainly from the thousands of Shiite Muslim pilgrims who travel to the holy cities of Najaf and Karbala every year.

In Iraq's semiautonomous Kurdish north, much of the economy is founded on trade with Iran and the smuggling of contraband into the Islamic Republic. Since the 1979 founding of Iran's theocracy, Kurdistan has been a transit point for banned alcohol, movies and satellite dishes.

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A blow to the economy

The U.S. raid on the Iranian office, which handled visas and other paperwork for Iraqis traveling to Iran, struck at the heart of Kurdistan's economy, which depends on commercial ties with Iran facilitated through that office.

Doing business with Iran also means doing business with the Revolutionary Guard, an institution that controls Iran's borders. Hassan Kazemi-Qomi, Iran's ambassador to Iraq, is a former member of the guard. Any neighboring country that wants to do business with Iran has to deal with members of the force, which was created by Grand Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini to aid the Islamic revolution.

Iraq's Kurds share a storied history with the Revolutionary Guard, fighting side by side against former Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein in the 1980-88 Iran-Iraq war.

Iraqi President Jalal Talabani, a Kurd, once told The Times that he planned military operations against Hussein with Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, Iran's controversial president.

Khalilzad, the U.S. ambassador, acknowledged the past but said it was time for Iraqis to sever ties to such groups.

"Now Iraq is in a different place," he said. "There cannot be and there should not be relations with security institutions of neighboring states that work against the interests of this new Iraq."

Iraqis and Kurds who oppose the detention of the five Iranians say the U.S. raid made the Iraqi government appear weak or a puppet of the Americans.

"They should help the Iraqi government to demonstrate its independence [and] sovereignty in its dealing with other countries," said Zebari, the foreign minister, referring to U.S. officials.

"Because of the simplest things, any country will question the basis of your sovereignty, and that weakens the position of the Iraqi government."

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'Not a new discovery'

Iraqi officials want the U.S. to release the five Iranians. Zebari described them as "Iranian officials" working in a "liaison office" where Iraqis could go for "consular services like travel permits to Iran."

Kurdish regional authorities and the government in Baghdad knew about the Iranians in Irbil and were in the process of transforming the agency into a consulate, Zebari said.

"This is not a new discovery, this office," he said. The Iranians had been "working there publicly, openly. It was not a clandestine network. That's the thing we need to explain to our friends."

He said the Iraqi government had not been shown any of what Casey said was evidence that the Iranians were spies. He said Iraq had not been part of the interrogation.

While Iraq has been strengthening its ties with Iran, it has also made overtures to its western neighbor Syria. Talabani is on a state visit to Damascus, the first such high-level meeting in almost three decades.

"For some time, we've been working quietly with them to normalize relations, to start up security talks with them," Zebari said.

The Iraq Study Group recommended that the U.S. begin a dialogue with Iran and Syria.

But administration officials, under the sway of neoconservative intellectuals who see Iran as a danger to Israel and the U.S., have resisted such calls, saying Tehran must give up its nuclear program and stop supporting militant groups in the Palestinian territories and Lebanon before there can be talks.

Last year, Abdelaziz Hakim, a leading Shiite politician in Iraq who spent years in exile in Iran, tried to improve U.S.-Iran relations by proposing that Iraq act as a go-between or a host for talks between the two nations. Iran rejected the plan when it became public, Zebari said.

Instead, relations have worsened, creating diplomatic headaches in Iraq.

"This is not a clean war," Zebari said. "These complications, embarrassments happen. Through these last three, four years we've been through this many times."