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Iraqi Elections: Concern or Opportunity for Neighbors?

Iraqis are moving forward with plans to hold elections at the end of January, but some leaders there are complaining about meddling by factions from outside the country. A recent conference in Egypt brought together Iraq's neighbors to talk about how they can help stabilize Iraq. Some analysts say Iraq's neighbors view the situation as an opportunity to pursue their own national interests.

During separate visits to Washington, Iraq's interim president Ghazi al-Yawar and King Abdullah of Jordan recently complained about what they see as Iranian and Syrian meddling in Iraq's internal politics. King Abdullah also charged Iran with sending about one-million people into Iraq to vote for Shi'ite candidates.

Middle East analyst Larry Diamond is a senior fellow at Stanford University's Hoover Institution. He says Iranian moves to spread its influence among Iraq's majority Shiite population are not a surprise. "Iran has been meddling since the war ended and Saddam fell," he says.

Mr. Diamond, who also served as an analyst for the U.S. provisional authority in Baghdad, says Iran has always sought to spread its religious and political influence in the region. There is an extra motivation to do so in Iraq, where the Shiite population was persecuted for decades under Saddam's rule. "I think they hope to establish a zone of influence or sphere of influence over Shiites in the entire region that would provide an arc of hegemony stretching through southern Iraq and into Kuwait and even Saudi Arabia. So Iran is both trying to consolidate its hold over Shiites in the entire Persian Gulf region and to consolidate its position as a dominant actor in the region," he says.

Iraq's interim president charges that Iran is coaching and financing candidates for the January elections.

David Phillips is Deputy Director of the Council on Foreign Relations' Center for Preventive Action. He underlines the independent, nationalist traits of Iraqis that he believes would temper any attempts to reproduce an Iranian-style theocracy there. Still, he predicts Iranian elements will become more active if the Shiite majority does gain political power. "If Iran tries to influence things in Iraq, I don't think it will be in the run-up to elections. It will be after the constitutional commission is established when Iraqis begin deliberating what kind of power-sharing structures Iraq will have in the future," he says.

Some Iraqi officials also raise concerns about the spreading appeal of radical Saudi clerics and Islamist groups aiding insurgents opposed to Iraq's transition to a secular democracy.

Syria does not escape criticism either. Some Iraqi and U.S. officials complain Damascus is not cracking down on exiled Saddam loyalists who sought safe haven there and who are accused of aiding and abetting the insurgents too.

Imad Mustafa is Syria's Ambassador to Washington. He rejects the accusations as a smear campaign and points out his government's cooperation with U.S. and Iraqi forces to help stop the flow of weapons and terrorists across the Syrian-Iraqi border. "As to the claim that the insurgency in Iraq is being conducted by individuals that are actually in Damascus, its' not only that we refute this, we think it is preposterous. On the one hand, we are worried about what's happening in Iraq. On the other hand, its' not constructive to launch campaigns or accusations against Syria vis-à-vis Iraq because we are really not interfering with what's happening there," he says.

That does not mean his government is not monitoring the situation closely. Ambassador Mustafa says Syria and Iraq's other neighbors are concerned that Iraq's elections should shore up national unity, not destroy it. "Our fears are if there elections will further divide the society in Iraq, across regional and sectarian and factional lines, it will push Iraq toward further escalation of violence and lawlessness and chaos. That is our only fear," he says.

Analyst David Phillips says the outcome of Iraq's elections will have repercussion beyond the borders. "It is in the interests of all of Iraq's neighbpors to have a stable Iraq," he says.

Mr. Phillips says Iraqis need to focus their efforts on safeguarding unity and preventing the country from disintegrating into a chaotic situation that would make it ripe for outside interference.