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Panetta Warns Iran Not to Interfere in Iraq

US Defense Secretary Panetta, 25 Oct 2011.

US Defense Secretary Panetta, 25 Oct 2011.

U.S. Secretary of Defense Leon Panetta is warning Iran not to take advantage of the pending U.S. troop pullout from Iraq to stir up trouble there. The warning comes after Iraqi security forces arrested over 200 former Ba'ath Party political and military commanders, accusing them of “trying to topple the government.”

Iraqi media this week announced the arrests of over two hundred former members of Saddam Hussein's once-ruling Ba'ath Party. A statement on Iraqi television accused them of trying to overthrow the government.

The arrests came as U.S. Secretary of Defense Panetta on Wednesday warned Iran, during a visit to Japan, “not to miscalculate” the U.S. “commitment” to Iraq, despite the withdrawal of American troops scheduled for year's end.

Sunni Muslim Iraqi political leaders, including Vice President Tariq al-Hashemi,
expressed anger over the arrests. Hashemi warned against conducting what he sees as a witch-hunt for Ba'ath Party members.

He calls the arrests an unfortunate development and asks top officials to explain why they have taken place. He added that Iraqi leaders should seek unity rather than sow division.

Iraq's top opposition leader, Iyad Allawi, whose party won the most seats in last year's parliamentary election, accused his nemesis, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, of ordering the arrests to “marginalize” his opponents.

Allawi called the arrests part of the ongoing policy by the prime minister of isolating opponents of the government.

Iraqi Sunni political leaders worry that Iran's influence in their country will continue to grow as U.S. troops pull out. Middle East analyst Peter Harling says that arresting former Ba'athists in Iraq is part of a strategy by pro-Iranian parties to gain control of Iraqi security forces.

“This notion of a coup d'etat is being used in the context of that long standing struggle to push aside those elements that could best resist the growing Iranian influence in Iraq, in particular the old school officers that go back to the former regime and tend to have more of a nationalistic outlook, so tend to be rather anti-Iranian,” said Harling.

But former former Iranian President Abolhassan Bani Sadr, who lives in exile in France, doesn't think Iran will increase its influence in Iraq.

He says that in the short term Iran will not be able to wield a strong influence over Iraq, despite its clout with two top Shi'ite parties because Iraqi public opinion, influenced by Sunni muslims, is anti-Iran.

Bani Sadr does believe, however, that in the longer term, Iraq will seeks closer ties with Iran to increase its clout in the pan-Arab political arena.