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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

This is MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Good morning. I'm Renee Montagne.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

And I'm Steve Inskeep.

We begin with a long-standing rivalry in the Persian Gulf region. The United States and Iran have battled each other for years to influence the future of Iraq. Now the U.S. and Iran are in a state of transition.

President Obama reaffirmed yesterday that the American combat mission in Iraq will conclude at the end of this month, and well have more on that in a moment.

MONTAGNE: First, we look at what Iran is up to. A few years back, American commanders said Iran was behind many insurgent attacks, and the Iranian goal was to keep Iraq unstable. Now Iran appears more interested in influencing politics, social services, and the economy.

NPR's Kelly McEvers recently traveled to Iraq's holy city of Najaf and filed this report.

(Soundbite of street sounds)

KELLY MCEVERS: It's one of the most sacred places in the world for Shiite Muslims, the shrine of Imam Ali, who was the cousin and son-in-law of the Prophet Mohammad.

(Soundbite of voices)

MCEVERS: Women young and old crowd up to the golden casket where Ali is thought to be entombed. They touch it and kiss it, begging Ali to grant their prayers.

During the rule of Saddam Hussein, very few Shiites from outside Iraq could come here. Now more than a million come each year. Most are from Iran.

Religious tourism is big business in Iraq, second only to oil exports.

Mr. SAEB RADHI (Hotel Owner): (Foreign language spoken)

MCEVERS: Saeb Radhi shows us around his hotel, a main stop for Iranian pilgrims on their way to the Imam Ali shrine. The first thing you see in the lobby is a prayer room.

Mr. RADHI: Of course in the past it used to be a reception. My special office was here. But we made it as a praying place for them.

MCEVERS: Them being the nine tour companies that bring Iranian pilgrims to Iraq.

These companies control everything, Radhi says, from what TV channels each room should provide to the catering company that prepares Iranian food and brings it to the hotel.

(Soundbite of clanking dishes)

MCEVERS: Radhi and other hoteliers here complain that the companies were hand-picked by Iranian officials who control religious travel. Each one of these companies, they say, is connected to a political party in Iraq.

Mr. RADHI: (Through translator) So if it is a matter of tourism only, so why only nine companies have to run this business? Why not other private companies? For instance, I've got a company, he's got a company. So why you cannot run the business? Why only these nine companies have to run the business?

(Soundbite of cars)

MCEVERS: It's not just tourism companies here that are controlled by Iran.

Mr. RADHWAN KILIDAR (Former Parliamentarian): This is the hospital you see, it says Islamic Republic of Iran.

MCEVERS: Radhwan Kilidar is a former member of parliament from Najaf. He shows us Iranian construction projects around the city. Some are public.

Mr. KILIDAR: Now at the end of the road we're going to see the Iranian consulate.

MCEVERS: And some, like the office of an Iranian cultural organization in Kilidar's neighborhood, are more discreet.

Kilidar says when the U.S. first toppled Saddam Hussein, Shiites here in southern Iraq welcomed Shiites from Iran. But when it seemed that Iran was meddling in Iraq's affairs, people grew suspicious. Now Kilidar says he doesn't mind Iranian pilgrims, Iranian goods, or Iranian expertise. Iranian exports to Iraq are expected to hit $10 billion a year.

Mr. KILIDAR: But when there's political motives behind such things, we say no, we'll put a stop and let's think about it again.

MCEVERS: Just because Iran is flexing its power doesn't mean it always gets what it wants, says Joost Hiltermann, an Iraq analyst with the International Crisis Group. For instance, Iran's hope that a super-Shiite bloc would dominate Iraqi politics is not coming to pass. Iran's arch-enemy, the U.S., is pulling its troops out of Iraq. And that, Hiltermann says, means Iran's role here is changing.

Mr. JOOSE HILTERMANN (International Crisis Group): It will no longer need to play the role of spoiler in Iraq that it has been playing over the past seven years. But it will then have to face a new task altogether, because it is not in Iranian interest that Iraq fall apart. That requires a positive task of nation-building.

MCEVERS: Hiltermann says this task puts Iran's interests much closer to those of the U.S. He says the old proxy war between the U.S. and Iran is ending, and a new relationship between the two could begin.

Kelly McEvers, NPR News.

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