Sunday, March 07, 2010

Shadow of Iran hangs over Iraqi elections

Iraq's days as a battlezone may be over, but as election day arrives, the country's powerful neighbours are still meddling in its affairs, reports Richard Spencer in Baghdad.

Shadow of Iran hangs over Iraqi elections
By Richard Spencer in Sadr City
Published: 7:00AM GMT 07 Mar 2010
HIS hopes of being elected may or may not come true on Sunday, but life has already improved remarkably for Hakim al-Zamili.

Two years ago, he was on trial in a Baghdad court, charged with using his post as Iraq's deputy health minister as cover for running Shia death squads. He was accused of financing killing sprees against Sunnis, and even using ambulances as hearses to ferry murder victims to secret graves.

Now, after a trial that collapsed amid widespread claims of witness intimidation, Mr Zamili is busy presenting himself not as a warlord, but a democrat. Sitting under a portrait of Moqtada al-Sadr, the Iran-backed Shia cleric whose militia waged war against both British and US troops and fellow Iraqis, he talks earnestly of the need for "technocratic government" and the fight against corruption.

"I want to serve my people," said Mr Zamili, who claims the charges against him were the result of a smear campaign. "I want to remove the obstacles from their path."

Like Mr Zamili himself, there is much else about Sunday's polls that begs the benefit of the doubt. On the surface, a vibrant campaign has been fought, defeating the best efforts of al Qaeda suicide bombers to derail it, and engaging both Sunnis and Shia Muslims with equal vigour. It is likely that Nuri al-Maliki, the uncharismatic but astute prime minister, will be returned to office - the first time in Iraq's history that its people will have stuck with a leader voluntarily. But as the country's 19 million war-weary voters visit the ballot boxes today, they will do so under the shadow of Iran, their powerful neighbour to the east.

Nowhere are those shadows more strongly felt than in Sadr City, the vast, two million-strong Shia slum to the east of Baghdad that is Mr Zamili's power base.

Named after Moqtada al-Sadr's late father, a leading Shia ayatollah, it has long been a strong hold of militants with close ties to the Shia mullahs who control Iran. It was here, somewhere in its crumbling, litter-strewn public housing blocks, that the British hostage Peter Moore is believed to have been held hostage for a time, and it was here, between 2004 and 2008, that US forces fought running battles with Shia gunmen trained by the al-Quds Brigade, the elite guerrilla warfare unit of Iran's Revolutionary Guard.

Today, the roadside bombs and kidnap gangs that once made it perilous for Western troops and reporters alike are gone, and a two-mile-long concrete blast wall erected by the Americans to restrict the movements of militiamen is smothered in election posters. Yet nobody around here really believes that Tehran's influence has waned. While Mr Zamili denies US claims - backed by evidence from weapons cache seizures - that the Iranians provided guns for Shia militants, he does not deny the continued presence of al-Quds operatives on his patch. "Because of the occupation Iraq became wide-open for all the movements, all the groups," he said. "Al-Qaeda, al-Quds - Iraq became an open playing field."

It was the al-Quds Brigade that was accused of planning and overseeing the kidnapping of Mr Moore, the British IT expert who was seized along with his four bodyguards from the Baghdad finance ministry building in 2007. He alone was freed just before New Year, in what was widely regarded as an exchange for the release from American custody of Qais al-Khazali, the leader of another Iranian proxy militia.

Yet while that was widely viewed a triumph for the politics of the gun, Iran's strategic goals in Iraq are also well served by allowing electoral democracy to take its course. For one thing, many senior players in Iraq's current Shia-dominated government spent time in exile in Iran during their years of opposition to Saddam's Sunni rule, the mullahs having welcomed in the enemies of the man who invaded Iran in the 1980s. And for another, with roughly 60 per cent of Iraqis being Shias, majority rule tends naturally to produce a government that will be friendly to Iran. For all the efforts of Iraq's fledgling secular parties to appeal across the Sunni-Shia divide, many of today's votes will still be cast on unquestioningly sectarian lines.
Asked why he would be supporting the Iraqi National Alliance, the Shia coalition of which the Sadrists are part, Usam Abdullah, a young and fashionably dressed shop-keeper in Sadr City, replies simply. "They are my sect".

As such, the perception of many parties is that the Iranians are free to their own loyalists - including men like Mr Zamili - into key positions in government. "We have to face the facts," said Raad Mukhlus Mawloud, a Sunni candidate. "Everyone knows the depth of Iranian influence."

Such talk is dismissed as "paranioa" by some Western diplomats in Baghdad. But it refuses to go away, not least because of a recent Iraqi government decision to ban 145 election candidates on the grounds of past links to the Ba'ath Party of Saddam Hussein - widely seen as a thinly-veiled attack on the community that harbours deepest distrust of Iran.

The chairman of the election commission responsible for the ban was none other than Ahmed Chalabi, the former Iraqi exile and former Washington ally whose faulty intelligence on weapons of mass destruction spurred the 2003 US invasion in the first place.

Once the darling of the US, he is now stands accused by the Pentagon of being an Iranian agent, and is likewise a prominent candidate on the Sadrist electoral coalition. Leaks of US intelligence reports have also recently claimed that Iran is funding the Sadrists to the tune of $8 million a month, and that Mr Chalabi had discussed with an al Quds commander tactics for ensuring a clean sweep to victory in the elections.

"They've had several meetings in Iran," said General Ray Odierno, the US forces commander, who openly accused Mr Chalabi and another commission official, Ali al-Lami, of being directly controlled by Tehran. "And we believe they're absolutely involved in influencing the outcome of the election."

The anti-Ba'athist election ban, which led to threats of a boycott of the polls by some Sunni parties and fears of a re-kindled civil war, has since been partly lifted following strong US pressure, but many feel the damage has already been done. "This has polarised the election atmosphere," said one diplomat. "It means that nearly everybody will vote on sectarian lines." And either way, Tehran stands to profit from the outcome of today's polls. A heavy defeat for Sunni candidates would trigger renewed violence by Sunni militants, many with links to al-Qaeda, dragging Iran's other enemy, America, back into the quagmire.

True, few people at the moment expect Iraq to become another theocracy like Iran. Tehran's mullahs have enough of their own problems at the moment from their home-grown pro-democracy movement to export their Islamic revolution abroad at present. And besides, many Iraqis are so weary of violence that they now reject all foreign interference, be it American or Iranian. Even Mr Zamili maintains a distance from Tehran, in public at least. "If the Iranians come, be sure that we will fight them as we fought the Americans," he said.

But by asserting itself as leader of a wider Shia world, Iran has the potential to cause trouble across Iraq to the Gulf countries and Saudi Arabia, whose substantial Shia minority occupies the country's richest oil fields. That "trouble" could be activated were Iran to come under military attack from Israel or America over its alleged nuclear bomb program.

As such, it will most likely continue to court the likes of Mr Zamili, who is clearly at home with either the bullet or the ballot: for all that he relishes his new role as a political campaigner, he continues to defend the Mahdi army's resort to force.

And should his party be elected to power, its leader, the firebrand cleric Moqtada Sadr, will be better placed than any Iraqi politician to be receptive to Iran's concerns. Having officially declared a truce agains the US and British armies that he fought so hard against, he is now enrolled in a theology course - in the Iranian city of Qom.