Registering New Influence, Iran Sends a Top Aide to Iraq

By JOHN F. BURNS

New York Times

May 18, 2005

BAGHDAD, Iraq, May 17 - Wasting little time in registering its new influence in Iraq, Iran sent its foreign minister to Baghdad on Tuesday only 48 hours after Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice became the first high-level visitor to hold talks with Iraq's new Shiite-majority government.

The arrival of the Iranian, Kamal Kharrazi, underscored changes in the political landscape that many Iraqis find dizzying: almost 25 years after Iraq and Iran started an eight-year war that left a million people dead, the government in Baghdad is now led by officials with close personal, religious and political ties to Iran's ruling Shiite ayatollahs.

Iraqi officials who greeted Mr. Kharrazi acknowledged that the timing of his arrival, so soon after Ms. Rice's 12-hour visit on Sunday, was not chance. "The political message of this visit is very important, notably in its timing," said Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari of Iraq, who at one point broke into fluent Persian, Iran's principal language, during a news conference with Mr. Kharrazi.

For his part, Mr. Kharrazi appeared eager to put the United States on notice that Iran expects to wield influence in Iraq, especially in the long term, that will match or outstrip the United States'. At one point, standing beside Ibrahim al-Jaafari, Iraq's new prime minister, Mr. Kharrazi fielded a reporter's question about the competition for influence in Iraq between Washington and Tehran with a reminder of what he described as the geographical realities.

"Let me add that the party that will leave Iraq is the United States, because it will eventually withdraw," he said in English, referring to the 138,000 American troops here. "But the party that will live with the Iraqis is Iran, because it is a neighbor to Iraq."

Dr. Jaafari and other top Shiite leaders gave Mr. Kharrazi a welcome suffused with references to the ties they formed during years of exile in Iran after fleeing the repression of Saddam Hussein. But there was no escaping the competing reality of America's power here, or the Iraqi leaders' need to balance affinities with Iran with their acknowledged dependence on American military power to hold back Iraq's Sunni Arab insurgency.

In his joint appearance with Mr. Kharrazi on the steps of the prime minister's office, Dr. Jaafari focused his remarks on the new government's determination not to allow its relations with Iran or the United States to be prejudiced by the hostility between Tehran and Washington.

"We will build relationships between Iraq and other countries according to Iraqi standards and Iraqi national interests," he said. "We would like to see relations between Iran and the United States that are characterized by peace and love, and by a sense of their shared interests. But our relations with every country will be fashioned in a way that is independent of the positive or negative feelings they may have for any other nation."

Mr. Kharrazi arrived in Baghdad by road after crossing from Iran at the Iranian border town of Mehran, 100 miles east of Baghdad, thus avoiding having to use the American military helicopters that are the inescapable form of transport for most high-level visitors to Iraq. But at the prime minister's compound, security was led by the United States Navy Seals in civilian dress who are Dr. Jaafari's constant companions.

In other ways, arrangements for the Iranian's visit demonstrated the differences between the relationships Iraq's new leaders seem likely to have with the two foreign powers contending for influence here. Ms. Rice, in her brief visit, met only with Iraqi political leaders and American officials and military commanders. Iranian officials said Mr. Kharrazi was expected to remain in Iraq for three days and to travel to the Shiite holy city of Najaf for a meeting with Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, the Iranian-born cleric who is the most revered and politically influential of Iraq's Shiite religious leaders.

In the 25 months since American troops swept Mr. Hussein from power, Ayatollah Sistani has refused to meet with American officials, leaving them to guess exactly what political preferences - or directives, as many Iraqis see them - he hands to the leaders of Shiite religious parties.

Aides to Dr. Jaafari said Mr. Kharrazi would also meet with Abdul Aziz al-Hakim, leader of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iran, or Sciri. It and Dawa are the ranking parties in the new government. Mr. Hakim has taken no government post, but is widely regarded as the most powerful of the Shiite political leaders.

Among many of Iraq's hard-line Sunni Arab leaders, and still more so among Sunni insurgent groups, the Shiite leaders' ties to Iran are a trigger for hostility and suspicions that trace back far beyond the Iran-Iraq war, to ancient history and the Persian conquest of Mesopotamia.

But Western scholars interviewed by telephone as Mr. Kharrazi began his visit cautioned against seeing the new Iraqi leaders as necessarily pliable in their relations with Iran and against any assumption that Iranian and American interests in Iraq are strongly opposed, at least as long as the Sunni insurgency here continues.

Shaul Bakhash, an Iran scholar at George Mason University in Virginia, said Mr. Kharrazi's visit showed that Iraq's leaders were eager to recognize the importance Iran, with its 800-mile border with Iraq, its trading possibilities and its Shiite faith, will have in Iraq's future.

But he said Iraq's Shiite leaders would not be pawns of the Iranians. "They are Iraqi nationalists, and now that they're in power, they're less dependent on external support than they were as exiled opposition groups," he said.

Other experts said Iran shared the United States' aim of vanquishing the Sunni insurgency in Iraq - a point Mr. Kharrazi alluded to after meeting with Dr. Jaafari, when he said Iran was ready to offer aid to Iraq on matters of security.

Fred Halliday, an international relations scholar at the London School of Economics, said: "Both Iran and the United States want to see Sunni insurrection defeated. Both will suffer if there is civil war in Iraq. The Iranians do not want to see a complete American troop withdrawal now."

Troops Battle Rebels in Mosul

BAGHDAD, Iraq, May 17 (AP) - American troops backed by helicopters battled scores of insurgents holed up in two houses in the northern city of Mosul, the military said Tuesday. Mosul's police commander, Lt. Gen. Ahmad Muhammad Khalaf, said 20 militants were killed when American aircraft destroyed the buildings, but the American military said it was unaware of any casualties.

Three Islamic clerics - a Shiite killed in a drive-by shooting and two Sunnis who had been kidnapped - were found dead in Baghdad, the police said Tuesday, a day after Iraq's prime minister vowed to use an "iron fist" to end sectarian violence.

The two Sunnis had reportedly been abducted by men in Iraqi Army uniforms, but Defense Minister Saadoun al-Dulaimi said the government was not involved. He also said Iraqi troops would no longer be allowed to enter mosques, churches or universities.

An additional 17 Iraqis were killed Tuesday: two officials in separate Baghdad drive-by shootings, six truck drivers delivering supplies to American forces north of the capital, a former member of the Baath Party and his three grown sons, three Mosul policemen, and two soldiers in Baghdad. An American soldier was killed and a second wounded when a roadside bomb struck their patrol near Tikrit, the military said.

Sabrina Tavernise, Richard A. Oppel Jr. and Razzaq al-Saedy contributed reporting for this article.