Thursday, June 18, 2009

Iraq Has Muted Reaction to Iran Election Result

By GINA CHON BAGHDAD -- After the fall of Saddam Hussein, Iraq mended ties with Iran, once a nemesis where many of Iraq's leading Shiite Muslim politicians found refuge from Mr. Hussein's repressive regime. But Baghdad's so-far lukewarm reaction to the announced re-election of Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad over the weekend is the latest sign of a new chill in relations between the two, mostly Shiite, Middle East heavyweights. Iraqi President Jalal Talabani publicly congratulated Mr. Ahmadinejad on his win, a customary diplomatic gesture. But other politicians, including Prime Minister Nouri Al-Maliki, who spent years of exile in Iran, have remained noticeably silent on the contested victory. Abdul Aziz al-Hakim, the leader of Iraq's largest Shia party, also spent years in Iran and is there now, receiving treatment for cancer. He hailed Iranian supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, after the election, but pointedly left out any mention of Mr. Ahmadinejad. When Shiite politicians took charge in Baghdad after Mr. Hussein's ouster, ties warmed considerably between Arab Iraq and Persian Iran, which were at war through the 1980s in a conflict that some estimate claimed as many as one million lives. Iran ratcheted up its economic and diplomatic presence here. Iranian pilgrims have flooded Shia holy sites in southern Iraq, lifting local economies. The two countries' leaders have visited each other. More recently, Mr. Maliki's government has clashed with its neighbor and sometime benefactor. The disputed Iranian election has triggered fresh carping at Tehran here, even among Shiite politicians who have the most to gain from warmer ties. "We hope whatever the outcome, we can find ourselves dealing with a more reasonable Iran that knows it can't bully us," said a Shia lawmaker. U.S. officials have long accused Iran of meddling in Iraqi affairs and backing Shiite militias. Iraqi officials have trod carefully because of past political ties and awareness that Iran provides significant economic investment. But in recent months, Iraqi officials have been more outspoken in complaining about Iranian interference. Baghdad and Tehran have exchanged heated letters recently over a border dispute, and Iranian officials lobbied Mr. Maliki's government against agreeing to a bilateral security pact with the U.S. late last year. After months of negotiations, the Iraqi government approved the deal. Iraqi businessmen and lawmakers, meanwhile, have lambasted Iran for economic encroachment, including flooding Iraqi markets with cheap goods. Part of the new Iran-bashing also is due to domestic politics. Iraq is bracing for its own elections early next year, and many politicians are eager to hone their nationalist credentials amid a growing popular backlash against perceived Iranian political and economic influence. Still, Baghdad is far from making an open break with Tehran. "We can talk about other neighbors, but with Iran, this is impossible," said a government official close to Mr. Maliki. "This was an unfair election," said the official, "but we can't say that publicly because we can't afford to affect our relationship with Iran."

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