Iran trip bolsters Maliki's credentials

Tehran and the US unite in support of the Iraqi prime minister but now he must convince neighbouring states.

The Jordanian prime minister Samir Rifai, right, welcomes the Iraqi prime minister Nouri al Maliki yesterday.
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TEHRAN // Highlighting Iran's growing clout in neighbouring Iraq, the Iraqi prime minister visits Tehran today to solicit help in securing a second term.

Nouri al Maliki already has Iran's staunch support. So his trip is more likely aimed at persuading Tehran to cajole Syria, a close ally of Iran, into supporting his candidacy, regional experts said.

Damascus had backed Mr al Maliki's main rival, Iyad Allawi, a secular Shiite, who won the overwhelming support of Iraq's minority Sunni community in the election.

Mr al Maliki also will seek Iran's influence to persuade elements of a loose Shiite coalition, the Iraqi National Alliance, to back him, analysts said.

Iraq holds the unenviable world record in being unable to form a government after the election in March.

Mr al Maliki visited Damascus last week, but it was unclear whether he secured support from Syria's President Bashar al Assad. The Iraqi prime minister infuriated Damascus last year by accusing Syria of supporting deadly lorry bomb attacks in Baghdad.

Mr al Maliki was in Jordan yesterday where King Abdullah II, who rules over a Sunni-led country, also withheld his public endorsement.

In a rare confluence of interests, meanwhile, both Iran and the United States tacitly back Mr al Maliki's drive for a second term, albeit for different reasons.

"Washington sees al Maliki as a moderate force within Iraq's Shiite community, while Iran views him as an ally who is not a secular Shiite like Allawi," said an Arab diplomat in Jordan, who spoke on condition of anonymity. "The US is placating Iran in Iraq because Iran is not causing any problems for the Americans as they withdraw."

Mr al Maliki's Shiite-led State of Law bloc finished a narrow second behind Mr Allawi's Sunni-dominated Iraqiya group in the March election, but neither came close to securing a parliamentary majority.

"Iran doesn't want the rise of Sunnis or secular pan-Arab Shiites in Iraq," said a senior Iranian analyst in Tehran, who declined to be named because of the sensitivity of the subject.

"Iran wants Iraq to remain neutral or at best pro-Iranian. Long-term political upheaval in Iraq is against Tehran's interests because it could aggravate strife between Sunnis and Shiites, which goes against Iran's interests," he said.

Iran is linked to its Iraqi neighbour by centuries-old ties of religion, history and trade and, inevitably, will play a role in Iraq long after US forces have left.

At the same time, Iran is aware of the power of Iraqi nationalism: Iraqi Shiites remained loyal to Baghdad during Iraq's eight-year war with Iran.

Saudi Arabia, the leading Sunni Arab counterweight to Shiite Iran in the Gulf, backs Mr Allawi because the kingdom sees Mr al Maliki as a sectarian politician determined to empower Shiites at the expense of Iraq's Sunni minority, which wielded power until Saddam Hussein was ousted in 2003.

Iran demonstrated its influence in Iraq earlier this month when, to the dismay of Washington, it persuaded the virulently anti-US Shiite movement of Moqtadr al Sadr, a radical cleic, to support Mr al Maliki.

Unconfirmed reports suggest that Washington has warned Tehran through intermediaries that it might jettison its support for Mr al Maliki if he includes Mr Sadr in his coalition.

Mr Allawi told Al Arabiya television over the weekend that Iran's behind-the-scenes "arm-twisting" was having a "negative effect" on politics in Iraq.

Mr al Maliki plans further travels in the region where Saudi Arabia, Eygpt, the Gulf Arab states and Turkey all see Mr Allawi as more representative of Iraq's Sunni Arabs and therefore more likely to roll back Iran's growing regional influence.

But, said analysts, the political momentum is behind Mr al Maliki, and by extension, Iran.