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August 14, 2008

Iraqi Sunnis Complain of Increased Iranian Influence

by Ahmed Ali and Dahr Jamail

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 Dawa Party of U.S.-backed Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.

Many more come where he recently came from.

Badr is being trained ostensibly to defend Shia leaders, under increased attacks from militant groups. Dawa is a Shia-dominated party and inevitably looks to Shia 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 U.S.

"The militants believe that the Shia 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 the 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. The U.S. allowed the militia to return to Iraq after the invasion of 2003.

The Iranian touch has come in all sorts of ways. Like chocolates.

"The militants [now Sahwa members] kept blocking import of goods from Iran," Hasan Qader, a shopkeeper in Baquba, told 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 Shia, especially in the last six months, shopkeepers are now allowed to deal in Iranian goods."

People in Diyala are divided over Iran. Most Shias seem supportive of it, but many Sunnis say Iran has played as great a role as the U.S. in destroying Iraq. "If the U.S. launches an assault on Iran, I'll be the first volunteer to fight on the side of the U.S.," Abdul-Razaq Khadem, a local trader, told IPS.

In 2003, 90 percent of the population of Diyala province was Sunni. But the Shia influence has risen now given the Shia domination in the 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 Dawa Party," a local teacher in Baquba, speaking on the condition of anonymity, told IPS.

"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 the condition of anonymity. Earlier, the Ministry of Trade 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," Qahtan Jasim, a local trader, told IPS. "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 $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, told IPS.

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 with IPS on the condition of anonymity because of the prevailing atmosphere of fear, said Iranian influence would have been impossible without the U.S. 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."

(Inter Press Service)

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  • Ahmed Ali and Dahr Jamail write for Inter Press Service.

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