Friday, February 24, 2006

U.S. invasion of Iraq allows Iran's clout to grow and spread

Tehran's growing influence has fueled the ambitions of
long-repressed Shiite Muslims.

Megan K. Stack and Borzou Daragahi, Los Angeles Times

BAGHDAD - The Islamic government in neighboring Iran watched with trepidation in March 2003 when U.S. troops stormed Iraq to overthrow Saddam Hussein and start remaking the political map of the Middle East.

In retrospect, the Islamic Republic could have celebrated: The war has left America's longtime nemesis with profound influence in the new Iraq and pushed it to the apex of power in the region.

Emboldened by its new status and shielded by deep oil reserves, Iran is pressing ahead with its nuclear program, daring the international community to impose sanctions. The blossoming of Iranian influence has fueled the ambitions of long-repressed Shiite Muslims throughout the Arab world. At the same time, Tehran has tightened alliances with groups such as Hamas, which recently won Palestinian elections, and with governments from Syria to China.

In the 1980s, Iran spent eight years and thousands of young lives waging a war to overthrow Saddam, whose regime was a strong counterweight that buffered the Sunni Muslim-dominated Arab world from Iran. But in the end, it took the U.S.-led invasion to topple Iraq's dictator and allow Iranian influence to spread through a chaotic, battle-torn country.

Now, Iraq's fledgling democracy has placed power in the hands of the nation's Shiite majority and its Kurdish allies, many of whom lived as exiles in Iran and maintain strong religious, cultural and linguistic ties to it. The two groups sit atop most of Iraq's oil, and both seek a decentralized government that would give them maximum control of it. A weak central government would also limit Sunni influence.

"A weak Iraq is now sitting next to a huge, mighty Iran. Now the only counterpart to Iran is not a regional power, but a foreign power like the United States," said Abdel Khaleq Abdullah, a political analyst and television host in Dubai. "This is unsustainable. It's bad for Gulf security. It's given Iran a sense of supremacy that we all feel."

Standing up for their sect

Fear of a Shiite Iraq has helped shape the Sunni Arab world's view of the insurgency in that country. Although many people revile the violence, there is also a quiet sense that the insurgents are fighting on behalf of Sunnis, standing up for their sect in the face of American and Iranian attempts to dominate Iraq.

Some Sunni extremists, jihadists from Yemen to Morocco, have been drawn to Iraq to set off bombs against symbols of Shiite power.

"When they attack the Shiites, they think they are attacking the Iranian influence," said Mustafa Alani, a counter-terrorism expert at the Gulf Research Center in Dubai. "They think they're attacking Iranian agents. To them, it's a legitimate target."

Keenly aware that it is playing with a strong hand, Iran is working to establish itself as a power to be reckoned with beyond Iraq. The government's increasing confidence can be seen in its aggressive insistence on the right to a nuclear program.

In 2003, when the secret program first became an international controversy, Tehran sought to calm concerns with a conciliatory, soft-spoken tone. Now, talks with three European powers have failed, and it is pressing ahead with uranium enrichment and even hinting that it might pull out of the Nuclear Nonproliferation Treaty.

Sarcasm and taunts

Knowing that its oil reserves make it less vulnerable to U.N. sanctions, it has sharpened its rhetoric. At a news conference in late January, Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Hamid Reza Asefi unleashed a torrent of sarcasm and taunts against Europe. British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw was "ignorant," he said, and French President Jacques Chirac "doesn't understand democracy."

The possibility that Iran will develop nuclear weapons is another worry for the Sunni-dominated Arab world.

When Jordan's King Abdullah warned a year ago with uncharacteristic bluntness that the emergence of a new government in Iraq could create a "Shiite crescent," Shiites in Iraq recoiled angrily and Jordanian officials insisted that the king had been misunderstood.

But many analysts believe he meant exactly what he said: that a new ring of fortified Iranian influence now stretches throughout Iraq, through the Kurdistan region into Turkey, to an ever weaker Syria and down into Lebanon's Hezbollah-dominated south, on Israel's border. Iran's hand also stretches into the heart of the Arabian peninsula through Shiite communities scattered in the Persian Gulf countries.


At 10:27 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Iraq's Oil Militia Seen Obstructing Reforms
by Anne Garrels

All Things Considered, February 20, 2006 · Since it was invaded three years ago, Iraq has lost more than $10 billion in oil revenues. Corruption and sabotage are largely to blame. And U.S. and Iraqi officials say insurgents are benefiting. But many say the Oil Ministry's own militia, contracted to protect the infrastructure, seems to be at the heart of the problem. Sixteen battalions of Iraqi troops are tasked with protecting the oil infrastructure.

Iraq has almost 5,000 miles of pipeline -- but the crippling attacks are focused in a small triangle in the center and north of the country, where the ministry battalions are based. The resulting damage has repeatedly interrupted the flow of crude oil and gas as it crippled a major refinery and electricity generating plant. The attacks have also both hampered oil exports and created serious fuel shortages in Baghdad.


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