The pilgrimage by hundreds of thousands of Shiites to Iraq's holy city of Karbala is drawing to a close. But the outpouring of Shiite unity, some of it tinged with anti-American sentiments, is raising concern within the Bush administration that neighboring Iran may be trying to influence events in a post-Saddam Hussein Iraq, just as the Iraqi people begin the task of deciding their future.
A senior U.S. official tells VOA close attention is being paid to what he calls elements backed by Iran in Shiite areas of southern Iraq, which could be trying to influence events in the country, as Iran tried to do in Afghanistan, or to incite attacks against U.S. forces.
White House spokesman Ari Fleischer says the United States has sent Iran a clear warning through diplomatic channels to stay out of Iraqi politics. "Infiltration of agents to destabilize the Shiite population clearly fall into that category and that is a position that we've made clear to the government of Iran," he said.
Iraq's population, like Iran's, is mostly Shiite, but the two countries, one with mostly Arab population, the other Persian, fought an eight-year war during the 1980s. Some of the hundreds of thousands of Shiites taking part in the pilgrimage to Karbala have called for a quick exit of U.S. forces and strongly oppose any American influence as Iraq takes its first steps toward a future government.
Retired American General Jay Garner, who is overseeing Iraq's reconstruction, has been welcomed by Kurds in the north, but has been given a more muted reception in Baghdad. On Wednesday, he again made clear the U.S. military plans to remain in Iraq only as long as necessary.
"We're only going to stay here long enough to start a democratic government for them. And we're only going to stay here long enough to get an economy going. And we're only going to stay here long enough so that we can get their oil running and the oil flowing back to the people and the revenues to the people," he said.
But he would not say how long all of this will take. But Senate Foreign Relations Committee Chairman Richard Lugar predicts it could take as long as five years before a democratic government can be brought to power in Baghdad.
At this point, the war has not even been declared over. And two weeks after the fall of Baghdad, the commander of coalition ground forces in Iraq says combat continues.
"We're still fighting pockets of resistance throughout Iraq. And we're still dealing with paramilitary forces," said Army General David McKiernan spoke to reporters from the Iraqi capital.
But he says coalition forces have not yet found any of what the United States said before the war were hundreds of tons of banned Iraqi chemical agents and other weapons of mass destruction.