Iran's Influence Palpable In Post-Election Iraq

Iraqis inspect site of car bomb near Iranian Embassy in Baghdad i i

hide captionIraqis inspect the site of a car bomb attack Sunday near the Iranian Embassy in Baghdad.

Karim Kadim/AP
Iraqis inspect site of car bomb near Iranian Embassy in Baghdad

Iraqis inspect the site of a car bomb attack Sunday near the Iranian Embassy in Baghdad.

Karim Kadim/AP

Central Baghdad is still clearing up the rubble after a triple car bomb attack Sunday targeted foreign embassies, killing at least 40 people and wounding hundreds.

Civilians caught up in the conflagration didn't hesitate to connect the attacks — in particular, one near the Iranian Embassy — with Iraq's ongoing political deadlock.

The scene is sadly familiar in Baghdad, but the context seemed a bit different. Authorities say the bombs aim to deter foreigners from investing or opening relations with Iraq.

But in front of the Iranian Embassy in Baghdad's government district, a soldier helping to secure the area felt sure he knew why this target was chosen.

"The [attackers] are trying to sabotage the political process. But they'll fail," said the soldier, adding that many of the winning candidates have been sending emissaries to the Iranian Embassy.

Iraq's elections last month left no clear winner, promising months of horse-trading among the Shiite, Sunni and ethnic Kurdish blocs. But Iraq also has neighbors, and one of them, Iran, has not been shy about asserting influence.

All of the Shiite and Kurdish coalitions have sent delegations to Tehran. Iraq must placate Iran to some degree, says Sadiq al-Rikabi, a senior adviser to Iraq's Shiite prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki.

"Iran [is] on our border, so we have to build a relation with Iran," he says.

Rikabi rejects the notion that Baghdad is caught between Iranian influence and American influence. It's the Sunni Gulf states, he says, that have rejected the democratic experiment in Iraq and are not open to Shiite and Kurdish leaders.

The U.S. military is on schedule to leave Iraq by 2012, and the embassy in Baghdad won't endorse any candidate. To the Sunnis, who mostly supported secular Shiite Ayad Allawi in the election, American neutrality doesn't make sense in the face of Iran's interference.

That's the "amazing" point of the story, says Nabil Said, an independent Sunni politician.

"Americans are just standing aside and watching, trying to pull out quickly and safely," he says.

But Said recognizes that Iran cannot be completely shut out. He says that Iran can ignite violence inside Iraq at will, by activating sectarian death squads and arming insurgents. The authors of the embassy attacks, on the other hand, are presumed to be Sunni extremists, who have taken responsibility for similar bombings in the past year.

As long as Iraq's political situation is unsettled, Iraqis fear there will be more dark days ahead. Mohannad Hassan's house near the Iranian Embassy was damaged in the blast.

"What can I say? It's between the government, the Iraqi people and Iran," Hassan says. "Iraqi civilians will be the victims, for how long? Only for a few chairs in the parliament?"

It takes 163 "chairs" in the parliament to make a majority and select Iraq's next government. Iraq's political factions — with encouragement from the neighbors — appear ready to fight over every last one of them.

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