Saturday, June 20, 2009

Iraqis back Iranian protesters' call for change

By Mehdi Lebouachera – 1 day ago BAGHDAD (AFP) — In a bazaar in Baghdad's predominantly Shiite district of Kadhimiyah, one tailor bluntly expresses hope that the turmoil now besetting Iran will lead Iraq's neighbour to stop interfering in his country. "Iran constantly meddles in our affairs; I hope that change means they will stop intervening," 43-year-old Salah Aziz told AFP. Like many Iraqi Shiites, Aziz backs the Iranian protesters who have turned out onto the streets in massive demonstrations over the past week to contest the re-election of President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. His views mirror the distrust many here have for Tehran, even as the two countries with strong Shiite majorities have strengthened ties in recent years, nearly three decades after the start of a war that left a million dead. Those improved relations, sparked by a number of Iraqi Shiite political leaders who lived in Iranian exile during the dictatorship of Saddam Hussein, have given Tehran greater sway with Baghdad. "Iranians have reason to protest," Aziz said, sipping coffee with friends during a break from work. "But I think Ahmadinejad will stay in power. He has the support of (Iranian supreme leader Ayatollah Ali) Khamenei." Nearby, mobile telephone seller Qais Zahar criticised Iranian political leaders, and particularly Khamenei, for imposing their vision of society on ordinary citizens. "Religious leaders should not intervene in politics and in people's day-to-day lives," the 27-year-old said. "I support the protesters. If the regime fell, that would be a good thing for Iran, and for Iraq." Though the two countries have Shiite majorities, religion's place in society is viewed in wildly different ways. In Iran, power resides with the clerics while, in Iraq religious leaders only provide counsel to politicians and generally do not participate in politics. It is a difference best illustrated by the differing roles taken on by Khamenei and Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, Iraqi Shiites' spiritual guide. While Khamenei is deeply involved in the day-to-day running of Iran and is the ultimate political arbitor, Sistani lives a cloistered life that is focused on religious matters. In the shrine city of Najaf, south of Baghdad, there is a large population of Iranian residents and tourists from the Islamic republic, and Iraqi Mohannad Hassan also hopes for change. "I think if Ahmadinejad wins this struggle, it would have a negative effect on Iraq, because Iranian intervention would continue," the 24-year-old said. Ali Saleh, a civil servant there, echoed those views, saying that "if Iran's leaders focused on their own problems, they would not get involved in other countries and would end their interference." In Iraq's other holy city of Karbala, a police officer who declined to give his name for fear of being reprimanded, also spoke of his hope of an end to Iran's influence on Iraq. "We don't interfere in Iranian affairs. We expect the same from them," he said. However, support for reform in Iran is not universal. Sheikh Abbas al-Daobul, an imam in Karbala, spoke of his concern that any change in Tehran could have a negative impact on Iran. "Ahmadinejad in power is better than any other regime when it comes to its relations with Iraq," he said. But for many Iraqis, who have only recently witnessed the emergence of democracy at home, their neighbours also should have the right to be "free". "Here, we are free," said Aziz in Baghdad. "Freedom to vote, to speak, to criticise. When I cast my ballot, it is taken into account. Why should Iranians not have this?"

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