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President Obama and Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki met in Washington earlier this week and delivered a clear message: Just because American troops are leaving Iraq doesn't mean Iran will become the new boss in the region. Iranian influence has long been a concern. But as NPR's Kelly McEvers reports, Iraq's other neighbors might help keep Iran in check.

KELLY MCEVERS, BYLINE: It was a ceremony that was unthinkable under Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein: Ashura, the annual Shiite ritual marking the slaying of Imam Hussein, the grandson of the Prophet Muhammad and one of the most revered figures in Shiite Islam.

(SOUNDBITE OF DRUMS)

MCEVERS: As the trumpets sound in Baghdad's notorious Shiite slum of Sadr City, boys and men wearing white shrouds bring swords down onto their shaven heads. Thick red blood gushes onto their faces. Imam Hussein sacrificed for us, the belief goes. We are ready to sacrifice for him.

(SOUNDBITE OF LOUDSPEAKER)

MCEVERS: Now that Saddam is gone, Iraq's majority Shiites are firmly in power. This has led many to assume that Iraq will now fall in perfect step with its powerful Shiite neighbor to the east, Iran.

To be sure, Iran wields much of what policy wonks like to call soft power here in Iraq. Iran sends millions of Shiite pilgrims to Iraq each year. Iran builds hospitals and provides water and electricity. Iran also arms militias that, in the past, attacked American interests and continue to stir up trouble in Iraq's divided political establishment.

Maysoun al-Damalouji is the spokesperson for a predominantly Sunni party. That party technically won the national elections last year. But then Iran stepped in to help form a larger Shiite coalition that managed to keep Shiite Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki in power. Damalouji says this means Maliki owes Iran a few favors - whether it's support for the leader of Iran's other major Arab ally, Syria, or opposing the return of American military trainers to Iraq.

MAYSOUN AL-DAMALOUJI: Everyone knows how dangerous the Iranian influence is. My advice - I would go to Maliki himself. I will say, look into your people and bring them together. Don't look at outsiders to support you. You should get support from within.

MCEVERS: Ray Takeyh of the Council on Foreign Relations says it's too easy to point the finger at Iran and blame it for all that's wrong with Iraq. He says Iraq's other Sunni-dominated Arab neighbors - like Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Kuwait -should stop isolating Iraq's Shiite government and embrace it instead. If they don't, he says, Iraq will only be pushed closer to Iran.

RAY TAKEYH: That's been the core mistake that I think the Sunni regimes have made: their inability, unwillingness to embrace this regime or accept it, for that matter, as a legitimate expression of the Iraqi population.

MCEVERS: Takeyh and other analysts say it's not just Iraq's Arab neighbors that could play a role in counterbalancing Iran's influence in Iraq.

(SOUNDBITE OF TRAFFIC NOISE)

MCEVERS: So I'm standing here. It's a pretty typical Baghdad street. You know, you have blast walls protecting everything, but what's different is there's a brand-new building and brand-new projects here; it's a new telecommunications building.

And for all the talk that Iran exercises a lot of soft power here, it's a Turkish company that's building this building. It's Turkish companies that are investing in the energy sector. And it's actually Turkish companies that got the contract to do a housing project in Sadr City.

Joost Hiltermann, an Iraq analyst with the International Crisis Group, says Turkey could play a positive role here in Iraq.

JOOST HILTERMANN: The Turks are very clever. They are using soft diplomacy and economic power to extend their influence against the Iranians, even though they wouldn't put it that way. The Iranians don't have anything comparable to offer to Iraq. It doesn't have the same quality of goods, the same type of investments. And so Turkey can beat Iran at that game. As long as it's a peaceful rivalry, a peaceful competition, the Iraqis can balance one against the other and meanwhile can develop themselves. They are not under anyone's direct control.

MCEVERS: Analysts agree that in the short term, Iraq's neighbors are likely to keep each other in check. But here on the ground, the perception of Iranian dominance is still a factor. And that, analysts say, could deepen the sectarian divisions inside Iraq.

Kelly McEvers, NPR News, Baghdad.

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