Wednesday, December 15, 2004

The New York Times > International > Middle East > The Elections: Iraqi Campaign Raises Question of Iran's Sway

The New York Times > International > Middle East > The Elections: Iraqi Campaign Raises Question of Iran's Sway: "Iraqi Campaign Raises Question of Iran's Sway
By JOHN F. BURNS and ROBERT F. WORTH

Published: December 15, 2004
BAGHDAD, Iraq, Dec. 14 - On a list of 228 candidates submitted by a powerful Shiite-led political alliance to Iraq's electoral commission last week, Abdul Aziz al-Hakim's name was entered as No. 1. It was the clearest indication yet that in the Jan. 30 election, with Iraq's Shiite majority likely to heavily outnumber Sunni voters, Mr. Hakim may emerge as the country's most powerful political figure.

Mr. Hakim, in his early 50's, is a pre-eminent example of a class of Iraqi Shiite leaders with close ties to Iran's ruling ayatollahs. He spent nearly a quarter of a century in exile in Iran. His political party, the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, was founded in Tehran, and its military wing fought alongside Iranian troops during the Iran-Iraq war. American intelligence officials say he had close ties with Iran's secret services.

For the United States, and for Jordan and Saudi Arabia, which have Sunni Muslim majorities, the prospect of Mr. Hakim and his associates coming to power raises in stark form the brooding issue of Iran's future influence in Iraq.

Among the Sunni Arab minority in Iraq, the fear of a Shiite-led government influenced by Iran has helped drive a powerful insurgency. If large numbers of Sunnis boycott the elections, and pro-Iranian Shiite religious groups dominate the 275-seat national assembly the voters will select, some Iraqis fear the country could spiral into civil war. They predict conflicts between Sunni and Shiite militias, or between secular and religious Shiite parties.

Nonetheless, many Iraqis and American experts on Iraq believe those fears are overstated. They say Iraqi clerics are generally wary of the idea of religious government, partly because of an entrenched doctrinal opposition among Iraq's Shiite religious leaders to direct rule by clerics, and partly because they recognize that Iraq's Sunni Muslims would fiercely resist it.

As election campaigning formally begins Wednesday among more than 230 parties and political groups that have entered lists of candidates, the question of Iranian influence will weigh heavily.

Ghazi al-Yawar, the Sunni Arab sheik who was selected as Iraq's interim president, and King Abdullah of Jordan have both recently sounded warnings.

In a BBC interview in London on Monday, Sheik Yawar cited reports that Iran had pushed up to a million people across the 900-mile border with Iraq in a bid to influence the elections, and that Iranian money was flowing covertly to Shiite religious groups competing in the election.

"There are some elements in Iran who are playing a role in trying to influence the elections," he said.

But American and Iraqi officials say that many of the migrants crossing the largely unmonitored border are Iraqi Shiite families that fled Saddam Hussein's repression, particularly after the failed Shiite uprising that followed the Persian Gulf war in 1991. Aid groups working on Iran's side of the border have said that tens of thousands of Iraqis have been forced to return home, and that the citizenship of many other migrants remains unclear, in an area where there have been unregulated flows of tribal Arabs for centuries.

Also weighing against the prospect of an Iranian-style theocracy in Iraq is that Iraqi clerics, unlike the ayatollahs who dominate the government in Iran, mostly belong to the "quietist" school of Islam that holds that clerics should not hold political power directly. A forceful exponent of that view has been Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, the most powerful Shiite cleric in Iraq - an Iranian by birth - who used his pervasive influence to push rival religious groups together in the political alliance Mr. Hakim now leads.

In his rare interviews, Mr. Hakim has also spoken out against clerics filling government posts, saying that they should project their influence from the mosques, not ministries.

According to rivals of Mr. Hakim within the Shiite alliance, the close ties he forged with Iran's ruling clerics during his exile have been maintained since he and others in the Supreme Council returned to Iraq after Mr. Hussein's overthrow. Those sources say that Mr. Hakim's group and other parties in the alliance, including Dawa, are receiving political advice and financing from Teheran. American officials say that Iran, or at least powerful agencies controlled by Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamanei, have backed a wide array of parties, militias and charitable groups that act as fronts for political activities here."

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