BAGHDAD // When Iraqis cast their votes in Sunday's election, they will be doing much more than merely deciding who is to lead their country for the next four years: they will be having a say in the outcome of a bitter struggle for regional primacy between Iran and the United States. Washington and Tehran increasingly appear on course for a showdown over Iranian nuclear ambitions, with the United States and its Middle East allies - among them Israel, Saudi Arabia and the Gulf states - all deeply troubled by the prospect of atomic weapons in Persian hands.
Against that backdrop there has been an extended tug-of-war between the United States and Iran over a playing field that has spanned the region, encompassing Lebanon, Syria and, since the 2003 invasion, Iraq. In March 2010 Baghdad is the focal point for that struggle. "In the short term, Iran wants an outcome to this election that gives it a strong negotiating position with the US over its nuclear file, that means power in Iraq," said Khalid al Maeny, an analyst with the Independent Studies Centre in Syria, a think tank with close ties to Iraq's nationalist insurgent movement.
"Over a longer term, Iran has made no secret of wanting to export its brand of Islamic revolution and to project its power across the region. "America, on the other hand, wants to be able to get out of Iraq and at the same time defend its regional interests, and that means it cannot leave Baghdad in the hands of Iran." While Iraqi politics are considerably more nuanced than a simple matter of pro-US or pro-Iran - party alliances shift and Iraqi politicians are pragmatic in their deal-making - that split has become an unavoidable subtext to this election.
The major political blocs have come to be seen as broadly aligned with one power or the other. Ayad Allawi's Iraqiyya list, made up of secular nationalists, has made no secret of its desire to roll back Iranian influence in Iraq and rebuild damaged ties with Iraq's Arab neighbours. Prime Minster Nouri al Maliki, head of the State of Law coalition, had, for a time, hinted at a similar agenda but that rapidly changed as the campaign heated up. Dependent on Shiite votes, Mr al Maliki and his Iranian-backed Dawa Party began to push more sectarian issues, alienating many Sunni Arabs and nationalists who are vehemently anti-Iran.
Another of the main coalitions, the Iraqi National Alliance, is even more openly sectarian Shiite. Its members have been driving the controversial pre-election de-Baathification programme that saw scores of candidates, including a leading member of the Iraqiyya list, Salah al Mutlaq, barred from standing over alleged links to the outlawed Baath Party. That de-Baathification process brought the Tehran-Washington contest out into the open, with the US military commander and senior diplomat in Iraq both publicly accusing Iran of malign involvement.
That claim was denied by those said to be allied with Iran, who in turn pointed to extended US interference in Iraq, including the small matter of almost 100,000 occupation troops. "There is no influence from the Iranian Embassy in the situation in Iraq or even about Baathists," said Kamal al Saadi, an MP with the Dawa Party. "We have seen the US Embassy try to effect the discriminatory commission and its decisions over Baathists' return to the government.
"We refuse such things and we asked the discriminatory commission to be away from any outside influence." Bahaa al Araji, a Sadrist MP charged the United States with trying to put Baathists back in power and said Iran was clearly unhappy about it. Iran and Iraq fought a devastating eight-year war under Saddam Hussein, something neither country has forgotten. "The Americans are trying to stop a fair political process in Iraq," he said. "Neither America nor Iran has the right to interfere in these things."
Suggestions by Iranian-backed parties - Dawa was formed in exile in Iran - that Tehran was not heavily involved in Iraqi politics were disingenuous, said Tharbet Salim, an independent Syrian political commentator. "Iraq is top of Iran's agenda and it has made sure it has a stake in most of the horses in the election race," he said. "The exception is Ayad Allawi and he is probably America's man. "Iran and the US each accuse the other of interference and they're both right. They both want to see a friendly government in Baghdad and, with their own relationship as it is, it's hard to see a way in which both sides can be satisfied."
The proxy struggle has left Iraqis in an impossible situation, according to Abdul Jalil al Jarba, an independent political analyst in Baghdad. "People are not puzzling over who to vote for in the national interest because it seems as though all the candidates are connected to foreign countries," he said. "The de-Baathification affair made it clear that Iran was involved and America was involved, so how can the process be trusted? How can anyone look at it and say it was fair, it was impartial?"
In the tribal belt south of Baghdad, Khalefa Moahmmad al Shammary, an influential sheikh, said Iraqis were tired of having their futures caught up in the Iran-US contest. "Iraq has become a place for Iran and the US to fight one another, and it is to the detriment of the Iraqi people," he said. "We are looking now for leaders who can take us away from the shadow of US control and Iranian control. We need and want Iraq to be in Iraqi hands.
"If we are not able to do that, the future will be dark for us, we will never see progress." email@example.com firstname.lastname@example.org