US blamed for Iran's clout in Iraq
BAQUBA - Haider returned from Iran recently, with enough money to pay for his wedding and a new car. He was trained to join Badr, the armed wing of the Da'wa Party of United States-backed Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki.
These days, more and more Iraqis like Haider are coming back from Iran.
Badr is being trained ostensibly to defend Shi'ite leaders, under increased attacks from militant groups. Da'wa is a Shi'ite-dominated party, and inevitably looks to Shi'ite Iran for support.
The Badr militia has itself been blamed for carrying out several attacks against Sahwa forces in some areas of Iraq. Many anti-occupation militants are now members of the primarily Sunni Sahwa forces - also backed by the US.
"The militants believe that the Shi'ite officials are from the Badr militia, who are trained and strongly directed by Iran, with of course the knowledge of the Americans," said a Sahwa leader, speaking on condition of anonymity.
The Badr militia was based in Iran for 20 years during the rule of Saddam Hussein. It comprises largely Iraqi exiles, refugees and defectors who fought alongside Iran during the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s. The US allowed the militia to return to Iraq after the invasion of 2003.
The Iranian touch has come in all sorts of ways.
"The militants [now Sahwa members] kept blocking the import of goods from Iran," Hasan Qader, a shopkeeper in Baquba told Inter Press Service (IPS). "They shot the shopkeepers who dealt with them. So it was rare to see Iranian chocolate or anything else. With the partial government control by the Shi'ites, especially in the last six months, shopkeepers are now allowed to deal in Iranian goods."
People in Diyala are divided over Iran. Most Shi'ites seem supportive, but many Sunnis say Iran has played as great a role as the US in destroying Iraq. "If the US launches an assault on Iran, I'll be the first volunteer to fight on the side of the US," said Abdul-Razaq Khadem, a local trader.
In 2003, 90% of the population of Diyala province was Sunni. But the Shi'ite influence has risen now given the Shi'ite domination of government.
"Iran enjoys influence through the men of the United Iraqi Alliance in the Baghdad government, as represented by the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council [SIIC] and the Da'wa party," said a local teacher in Baquba, speaking on condition of anonymity.
"The governor made a deal to import cooking oil from Iran at a very high price that has never been seen before," an employee at the governor's office told IPS, on condition of anonymity. Earlier, the Ministry of Trade had imported cooking oil from Turkey because it was of good quality and at a reasonable price.
Some people also blame Iranian influence for corruption in local government. "I think the Iranian influence will remain as long as there are such men as the governor [Raad Rashid Jawad] in the province," said Qahtan Jasim, a local trader. "The province was and still is the worst because of this corrupt administration."
Iran now provides electricity to Iraq, particularly Diyala province, under a contract with the Iraqi government.
"The Iraqi government gives US$5 million per month to the Iranian side to cover the cost of the electricity to Diyala province," said Mohammed al-Nieemy, head of the directorate-general of electricity in Diyala.
Despite instances of positive assistance from Iran, like increased electricity and business deals that have aided portions of Iraq's ailing economy, many Iraqis blame Iran for meddling in Iraq's politics.
"We don't have a representative government here or in Baghdad because of the heavy Iranian influence," Omar Abdullah, a trader now unemployed told IPS in Baquba. "That influence favors only those who support them, and injures those of us who do not."
Others, like a teacher who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the prevailing atmosphere of fear, said Iranian influence would have been impossible without the US occupation.
"The Badr militia and all their political and religious leaders entered Iraq on the backs of the American tanks," said the teacher. "Until the Americans came, there was no way they [Badr and Iranian-backed politicians and religious leaders] could set one foot in this country."
Ahmed Ali, IPS's correspondent in Iraq's Diyala province, works in close collaboration with Dahr Jamail, IPS's US-based specialist writer on Iraq who has reported extensively from Iraq and the Middle East.