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Experts See Iran in Bid for Influence in Iraq - 2003-04-13

Iran has maintained what it calls a neutral position with regard to the war in Iraq. But given its historical and religious connections with the country, some political experts say it is just a matter of time before Tehran will attempt to gain political influence in Iraq.

With the Iraqi military all but completely defeated and lawlessness being reported throughout the country, political experts in the region say an atmosphere exists in Iraq for many entities, including Iran, to attempt to exert political influence.

On Friday, Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamanei, said that while Iran has been neutral in the battle between the United States and Iraq, he said Iran would "interfere" if coalition troops remain in Iraq, viewing their presence, he said, as a threat to Iranian security.

Iranian interference would likely include an attempt to gain influence with Iraq's majority Shi'ite population, says Hala Mustafa, an expert on fundamentalism at the al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies in Cairo.

"Iran will try to gather the Shi'ite of the south, and integrate them in its political project," said Ms. Mustafa. "We could see something like the members of the groups of Hezbollah in Lebanon, something similar to that. In the beginning of the Lebanese civil war, Iran did not hesitate to create a Shi'ite-Irani faction in Lebanon. And I think something like that could be created in Iraq, especially in the south where the Shi'ite represent the majority of the population."

For years, Iraq's Shi'ite population in the south was oppressed by Saddam Hussein, following an unsuccessful uprising against Iraq's mostly Sunni Muslim forces at the end of the Gulf war in 1991. At that time, many Iraqi Shi'ites fled to Iran, where Shi'ism is also the prevailing religion.

Ms. Mustafa said she thinks Iran will not waste time attempting to generate support among Iraq's Shi'ites, which she says could give Iran considerable political muscle in Iraq.

Another expert said that while Iran wants to have influence in Iraq, Tehran will wait to see what it is dealing with before attempting to garner support among the Iraqi population.

"There is a difference between what they want in Iraq and what they can do in Iraq," said Sa'id Idris, who also works with the al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies. "I think they want many things in Iraq, but I do not think Iran can do anything now in Baghdad, until the United States puts its points [ideas] in Iraq. They are waiting to see what the United States will do in Iraq, and then make their influence in Iraq."

Mr. Idris also believes Iran could attempt to interfere in Iraq by supporting, both financially and militarily, armed resistance groups. However, he says, Iran is also interested in improving relations with the United States. That is why he believes Tehran would be very cautious before reaching a decision to support resistance movements in Iraq, especially he says, with 300,000 coalition troops stationed in the area.