The U.S.-led ouster of Saddam Hussein in Iraq had the side effect of removing Iran's biggest enemy. But things have not gone as smoothly in post-Saddam Iraq as the U.S. had hoped. U.S. officials have complained in recent months of Iranian aid to Iraqi insurgents. VOA correspondent Gary Thomas reports on Iran's bid for greater influence in the Middle East.

The subject of growing Iranian influence has increasingly crept into official U.S. pronouncements on Iraq, including the most recent ones of President Bush.

"If we were to be driven out of Iraq, extremists of all strains would be emboldened," he said. "Al-Qaida could gain new recruits and new sanctuaries. Iran would benefit from the chaos and would be encouraged in its efforts to gain nuclear weapons and dominate the region. Extremists could control a key part of the global energy supply."

George Friedman, chief executive officer of the private intelligence firm Stratfor, says that with political progress in Iraq stalled and sectarian violence continuing, the U.S. emphasis there has shifted from democracy promotion to containing Iran.

"We are still committed to maintaining a coalition government in Baghdad and providing security for it," said Friedman. "But as it becomes less and less tenable to achieve those goals, we start looking at what Iraq looks like after. And what Iraq looks like after this strategy is a country that is likely to be dominated by the Iranians. So we're moving toward an Iran strategy."

From 1980 to 1988, Iran fought a bloody war with Saddam Hussein's Iraq that killed up to an estimated 1.5 million people. In 2003, the U.S. got rid of Iran's worst enemy by deposing Saddam Hussein, a move which, analysts say, opened up the door for Iran to become the dominant power in the region.

Friedman says Iran believes its war with Iraq makes Iraq a legitimate security issue for Tehran.

"Iraq is a matter of fundamental national interest for Iran," said Friedman. "The fought a very long, bitter war with Iraq in the 1980s. Iran took a million casualties. And the single most important issue for Iran is never to repeat that experience. The American view is that Iran represents a regional threat, and we have to stop them."

Michael Ledeen, a scholar at the American Enterprise Institute with close ties to the Bush Administration, denies that Iran has any legitimate security interest in Iraq. He believes that the U.S. should have toppled the government in Tehran before tackling Iraq.

"We made a mistake in Iraq by failing to recognize that as soon as we set foot in Iraq the Iranians and Syrians and Saudis were going to come after us there," said Ledeen. "That was a true failure of strategic vision. And we should have supported revolution in Iran before going after Saddam Hussein, both because it was the strategically sound thing to do, and because if you're going to wage war against state sponsors of terrorism, Iran for decades now has been the leading state sponsor of terrorism."

Neighboring states of the Persian Gulf, like the United Arab Emirates and Bahrain, opposed the U.S. invasion of Iraq. But Alex Vatanka, a security analyst with Jane's Information Group who just returned from the Gulf region, says that privately, Gulf leaders are more worried about Iranian ambitions than the U.S. presence.

"The message you hear is, how do we know that the Americans are not going to leave the region and leave us here to face the Iranian threat by ourselves? And I think that's where you have the nuance come in. That's where they don't talk as hawkishly [publicly] as they do privately. Publicly they know they can't anger Iran as much just in the event that the U.S. was not there to protect them," said Vatanka.

Wayne White, a former deputy director of State Department intelligence, says the Gulf States fear that if the U.S. pulls out of Iraq, they will be dragged into a sectarian conflict in Iraq in which they would have to support their fellow Sunni Arabs while Iran backs its Shia proxies. He says that would put Syria, Iran's chief regional ally, in an awkward position.

"She [Syria] has a strategic alliance with Iran, the only alliance she has," said White. "What does she do? Does she sit it out? If Sunni Arabs are being very badly brutalized in the context of ethno-sectarian cleansing in the country, and [President Bashir] Assad tries to sit this thing out, Syria is very much a majority Sunni Arab country, and there's going to be tremendous pressure on him to do something to support the Sunni Arabs."

The top military commander in the Middle East, Admiral William Fallon, embarked on a 10-day trip to Persian Gulf states on Saturday. He told the Associated Press he is not looking for a new NATO-type alliance against Iran. But, he adds, Gulf states should be united against any Iranian regional ambitions.