JOHN YDSTIE, host:
In our continuing series on Iran and its neighbors, we look today at Iran's relationship with Iraq. It's a relationship torn between ties of history, religion and blood, and some of the bitterest hatreds in the Middle East.
NPR's Corey Flintoff reports from Baghdad.
COREY FLINTOFF: Earlier this year, Iran's embassy in Baghdad was hit by three car bombings in two days, triggering a ban on nearby parking. Even though much of the face of the building is now hidden by a high concrete blast wall, its presence is felt in the mobile phone shop of Ali Mohammed Hussein, who tenses slightly when he's asked about Iran's influence on his country.
Mr. ALI MOHAMMED HUSSEIN (Mobile Phone Shop Owner): (Through translator) It's negative, of course. Iran fights America here in Iraq. You don't need to be educated to know that.
FLINTOFF: Hussein is an Arab Shiite, which gives him a religious kinship with Shiite-dominated Iran. Iraq is, after all, the cradle of Shiite Islam, the scene of its epic battles and martyrdoms. Iranian pilgrims come by the thousands to weep and pray at the shrines in Najaf and Karbala, which to them are second only to Mecca in religious significance. Iran has also been a refuge for Iraqi Shiite leaders when they were faced with persecution by Saddam Hussein.
But Ali Hussein's religious kinship with Iran doesn't outweigh his deep suspicion of Iraq's bigger neighbor.
Mr. HUSSEIN: (Through translator) Iran is interfering with us militarily, economically and politically. I've never in my life heard of a third country discussing Iraq's affairs with the invaders.
FLINTOFF: He's referring to meetings that U.S. Ambassador Ryan Crocker has had with Iran's ambassador to Iraq, Hassan Kazemi-Qomi. Although the U.S. and Tehran don't have diplomatic relations, Crocker said the Baghdad meetings were held to discuss only one topic.
Ambassador RYAN CROCKER (U.S. Ambassador to Iraq): We made it clear that the subject was security and stability in Iraq, not a broader agenda.
FLINTOFF: The U.S. has repeatedly accused Iran of meddling dangerously in Iraq. Speaking in Baghdad earlier this month, Crocker said it's getting worse.
Ambassador CROCKER: We made it clear to the Iranians that in the two months since we had last met, we had actually seen an increase - not a decrease - of Iranian activities in support of radical militia elements and their violent activities directed against Iraqi security forces, Iraqi civilians and coalition forces.
FLINTOFF: Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has been visiting with his Iranian counterpart as well. His talks with Iranian leader Mahmoud Ahmadinejad in Tehran, on the surface at least, were much warmer. At a news conference in Washington, President Bush bristled somewhat on being told that Maliki had described Iran's stance as positive and constructive.
President GEORGE W. BUSH: Now, if the signal is that Iran is constructive, I will have to have a heart-to-heart with my friend, the prime minister, because I don't believe they are constructive. I don't think he in his heart-of-hearts thinks they're constructive either.
FLINTOFF: Whatever Prime Minister Maliki has in his heart-of-hearts, it doesn't seem to be an unquestioning belief in Iran's good intentions. NPR asked him recently whether Iran was doing all it could to ensure stability in his country.
Prime Minister NOURI Al-MALIKI (Iraq): (Through translator) All it can do? I don't know. They promised us a lot in their last visit and expressed great readiness to do their best to prevent militants from crossing their borders and to prevent weapons from crossing.
FLINTOFF: Maliki is a Shiite and he rose to power with the help of anti-American cleric Moqtada al Sadr, whose Mahdi Army militia is one of those the U.S. accuses of receiving money, weapons and training from Iran.
Iraqi attitudes toward Iran are shaped by sectarian perspectives. Sunni politician Alla Mekki is a member of the Accordance Front, an umbrella group of Sunni parties that has withdrawn its members from Maliki's government. Like many Sunnis, Mekki says he's anxious about what he sees as Iranian meddling.
Mr. ALLA MEKKI (Accordance Front): The evidence of interferences are many, and the media announcing - the Americans are announcing all the time - and we hear and see many of weapons discovered that's Iranian-made, even in Sunni areas.
FLINTOFF: What Mekki is alleging is that Iran is providing weapons to extremists on all sides of the conflict, with the intention of fueling the fighting and keeping U.S. forces tied down in Iraq. That way, the theory goes, Iran has less reason to fear that the U.S. will intervene to stop its nuclear program or its quest for greater influence in the region.
Unlike President Bush, though, Mekki endorses the idea of meetings between Iraq and Iran.
Mr. MEKKI: There should be meetings between USA leaders with Iranian leaders, rather than those sayings and statements between Mr. Bush and Ahmadinejad through the media.
FLINTOFF: But he also insists that Iraq must be a direct participant in those talks.
Iraq's Kurds are primarily Sunnis by religion, but they have a far more complicated relationship with Iran. One of Saddam Hussein's reasons for his genocidal campaign against the Kurds in the late 1980s was that he believed Kurds were collaborating with Iran in the Iran-Iraq war.
Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari disputes that.
Mr. HOSHYAR ZEBARI (Foreign Minister, Iraq): We do believe their interference in Iraq has never helped, and it will always make the things worse for us. It will make the life much harder for us as Iraqis.
FLINTOFF: Zebari is an ethnic Kurd, but he says the Iran-Iraq war is still a central part of the experience of Iraqis of all ethnic groups.
Foreign Minister ZEBARI: Iraq and Iran has been through war, took over eight years, and getting over that period, which is especially, it will take time. So maybe the full trust is yet to be established between the two countries.
FLINTOFF: The two sides are thought to have lost more than a million men in the struggle. In Iraq, it left a generation of widows and women who never could marry because there weren't enough available men. And since the war ended less than 20 years ago, it's still a vivid memory for many Iraqis whose views were formed by years of unrelenting anti-Iranian propaganda.
Zebari also says Kurds have a special reason for concern about Iran - its alleged quest for nuclear weapons.
Foreign Minister ZEBARI: We are one of the people who have suffered from the mass destruction weapons, just like it has happened in Halabja, chemical weapons was used against us. So we don't like anybody having that kind of mass destruction weapon because we are the first people who have suffered from them.
FLINTOFF: No matter what happens with Iran's nuclear program, or its relations with the U.S., the bottom line for Iraqis of all stripes is this: Iran will still be next door after the Americans have gone home.
Corey Flintoff, NPR News, Baghdad.
YDSTIE: The view from Syria, Saudi Arabia and Israel, and how Iran sees itself can be found at npr.org.