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Tuesday, September 12, 2006

Iraqi PM heads to Iran seeking "no interference"

BAGHDAD (Reuters) - Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki will deliver a blunt message to fellow Shi'ite Islamists in Tehran on Tuesday that they should not interfere in Iraq's affairs.

It is a message that may please Maliki's sponsors in the United States, who accuse Iran of funding and training militants fighting U.S. forces in Iraq, possibly in response to mounting U.S. pressure on Tehran to halt its nuclear program.

Maliki's spokesman told Reuters Iraqis no longer wanted to suffer for "messages between the United States and Iran".

While officially encouraging Iraq's new, warm ties to Washington's adversary, there is unease in the United States at Iranian influence over the Shi'ite leaders brought to power in elections that followed the U.S. overthrow of Saddam Hussein.

Since forming a national unity government four months ago, Maliki has vowed to curb militant Shi'ite factions, some of whom also have links with movements in Iran, as part of efforts to avert civil war with Saddam's once-dominant Sunni minority.

Stopping short of explicitly endorsing U.S. accusations of Iranian "meddling" in Iraq, government spokesman Ali al-Dabbagh said on Monday: "We want to pass a message to the Iranian leaders that Iraq needs good relations with neighboring countries, without interference in our internal affairs."

Under Saddam's Sunni-dominated secular regime Iraq fought a bloody eight-year war with Iran in the 1980s.

U.S. and British officials say high-powered explosives used against their troops in the past year have been supplied through Iran, though not necessarily with government approval.

Some leaders in Tehran are also close to the likes of radical, young cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, whose Mehdi Army militia is seen as particularly hostile to the occupying forces.

Saying Maliki would meet both President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei on his first official visit, Dabbagh told Reuters: "He wants to pass the message that Iraq needs stability, non-interference. If any country cannot play a positive role in Iraq they should not bring a negative."

Dabbagh said Baghdad saw Khamenei playing a key role in relations with Iraq and stressed security would top the agenda.


Amid tension over Tehran's nuclear program, some analysts believe Iran sees fostering violence against the 145,000 U.S. troops in Iraq as part of its leverage in negotiations.

Dabbagh would not be drawn on whether the Iraqi government believed that: "There is no official decision," he said.

But he added: "We understand that the violence in Iraq is being fed and financed by others. Some of them are countries, some are groups ... We'd like neighboring countries to share in stopping such things coming to Iraq."

Some Iraqi Shi'ite leaders have offered to mediate between Iran and Washington, which have not had diplomatic relations since Tehran's Islamic revolution in 1979.

Asked whether such mediation would feature in Maliki's talks, Dabbagh said: "Iraqis would like to see a normal relationship between the United States and Iran.

"This situation, we are paying for it in Iraq. Iraq has been used to pass messages between the United States and Iran. We want to avoid all tension."

Maliki's visit, first announced for Monday, follows trips to Arab states run by Sunni Muslims who view with suspicion Iraq's Shi'ite majority and its ties to non-Arab, Shi'ite Iran.

Should Iraq's sectarian conflict descend into all-out civil war, some analysts say other regional powers would be drawn in, with Iran backing the Shi'ites and the likes of Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states providing help to the insurgent Sunni minority.

The subsequent rise of the Shi'ite majority has brought to power in Iraq many leaders who spent long years in exile in Iran. Though Maliki was mostly based in Syria, many of those close to him in the Dawa party found refuge in Iran.
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