Attacks have ripple effect on Iran-Iraq ties

Posted in Iran , Iraq | 29-Apr-09 | Author: Aamer Madhani and Nadeem Majee| Source: USA Today

The thoroughfares surrounding the Imam Mousa al-Kazim shrine in Baghdad are usually crowded with Shiite faithful who come to pray at the shrine.

BAGHDAD - Ghulam Ridhaei wept Tuesday near the site of back-to-back bombings that killed dozens of fellow Iranian pilgrims last week as they visited a holy Shiite shrine.
"They want to tear the Shiites of Iraq and Iran apart," said Ridhaei, 64, of Tehran as he stood outside the tomb of Imam Mousa al-Kazim.

The crowds of pilgrims have thinned since Friday's attacks that killed 71 people. Another suicide bombing on Thursday at a roadside restaurant north of Baghdad killed at least 47 people, mostly Iranian pilgrims, according to the U.S. military.

Hamid al-Mualla, an Iraqi member of parliament, worries that the bombings could harm Iraqi-Iranian relations, which are a vital part of Iraq's struggling economy.

"It seems clear that al-Qaeda (in Iraq) or the enemies who are responsible for this were attempting to do three things," said al-Mualla, whose political party has close ties to Iran. "First, they are trying to restart the sectarian war. Second, they are trying to break our strong relationship with Iran. And third, they are trying send a message that Iraq is still not safe by killing our guests from Iran.

"We will not allow this to destroy our relationship with our neighbors," he said.

Iran's evolving relationship with Iraq is one of the complicated aspects of the 6-year-old war in Iraq.

On one hand, Gen. Ray Odierno, the top U.S. commander in Iraq, and other military officers have accused Iran of being behind some of the most deadly attacks against American forces.

But Iran is also one of Iraq's biggest trading partners and once served as the base for many of Iraq's Shiite political leaders in exile during Saddam Hussein's regime, when Sunnis dominated the country.

Iraq draws more than 500,000 Iranian tourists each year to some of the most important Shiite holy sites - including the Imam al-Kazim shrine in northern Baghdad.

After Friday's suicide bombings, Iran's government temporarily banned travel to Iraq, saying it was too dangerous for Iranians.

The area around the shrine has repeatedly come under attack, including three times in April. In January, a suicide bomber killed more than 40 people, including 16 Iranians marking the Shiite holy period of Ashura.

Business around the shrine has dropped by more than 50% over the past several days, according to the hotel managers, restaurant owners and vendors who line the usually clogged streets.

At the Qasr al-Madain Hotel, steps from Friday's explosions, 20 guests were staying at the hotel that almost always fills to its capacity of 46, said Ibrahim Mohammed, the hotel's manager.

Mohammed said he didn't have a single guest at another hotel he manages near the shrine.

"There have been incidents in the past, but this one was the worst and the most complicated, because they targeted Iranians," Mohammed said.

In interviews with a dozen Iranian pilgrims Tuesday, most said they were unaware of the travel ban, and all arrived before it was imposed.

Shamsi Sarkashizade got a call from her sons urging her to return home to Qom, Iran, after the attacks, but she refused.

"I told him we will not return until we see Imam al-Kazim," Sarkashizade, 60, said. "This is a wish we have had all our lives, and we would be willing to be martyred here for our imam."