(Los Angeles Times) - Hussein Athab visited Iran three times after the fall of Saddam Hussein in 2003.The political science professor took in Iran's religious sites and admired Iraq's bigger, richer and stronger Shiite Muslim neighbor to the east.
But his esteem for Iran's government has since plummeted due to what he and many others here view as Iranian meddling and subversion in his native city of Basra.
"We thought Iran would extend the hand of friendship," said Athab, himself a Shiite. "But it looks like Iran considers Iraq a playing card, and we don't want to be used as a playing card."
Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad arrives March 2 to an Iraq far more leery of his country than in the period soon after the collapse of Saddam's vehemently anti-Iranian regime.
Publicly, Iraq's politicians welcome the firebrand president's arrival. He is the first leader of a Middle East country to visit Baghdad and grant Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's government the international recognition it craves.
But privately, Iraqi officials say that Ahmadinejad and the adventurous clique surrounding him are part of the problem. As with much of the rest of the world, Iraqis would prefer a visit by a less divisive and bellicose figure, such as reformist former President Mohammed Khatami or Ayatollah Hashemi Rafsanjani, regarded as a pragmatist. "We know that Ahmadinejad is a controversial figure and we have seen some policy changes since the time of Khatami," said Athab.
Iraqi President Jalal Talabani, who visited Tehran last June, is due to host Ahmadinejad, most likely at his heavily fortified southern Baghdad compound outside the U.S.-protected Green Zone. "The visit of the Iranian delegation to Iraq will be hosted by the government of Iraq," said Rear Adm. Gregory J. Smith. "The United States has no role in the visit."
Though Iraq is predominantly Arab and Iran is Persian, ties between Tehran and Baghdad's current Shiite-dominated leadership run deep and stretch back decades. During the 1980s, Talabani and fellow Kurds as well as the Iraqi Shiite political parties and militias now in charge in Baghdad fought alongside Iranian forces against Saddam's largely Sunni Arab troops. Tehran was among the first countries to officially recognize the Baghdad government that took Saddam's place.
But even among Iraq's Shiite Muslim majority that has long looked to Iranian coreligionists as protectors and patrons, a palpable wariness has welled up about Tehran's strategic ambitions and tactical maneuvers in their country. Many conclude that Iraq has become a battleground in a 30-year feud between the United States and Islamic Republic of Iran, and that Tehran has few qualms about sacrificing Iraqi lives and stability for its strategic goals.
"There's a problem because the Iranians feel threatened by the Americans, and they want to act tit-for-tat with the Americans," said Haydar Abadi, a high-ranking adviser to al-Maliki's government. Both belong to the Dawa Party, which Iran sheltered during Hussein's rule. "Whenever Americans pressure Iran outside Iraq, the Iranians respond in Iraq. We're paying for this in blood."
Abadi and other Iraqi leaders said they would use Ahmadinejad's visit as an opportunity to warn Iranians about their behavior in Iraq, including U.S.military allegations that Iran has smuggled powerful explosive devices and other weapons to militia groups.
"The relationship between Iran and Iraq started off very good after the collapse of the regime," said Abadi. "But it has become worse because of this. The Iranians must see this. It is not in their interest to have the Iraqis as their enemies. Ahmadinejad will be told that we cannot have good neighborly relations while Iraqis are being killed by Iranian bombs."
Iraqi officials are also struggling to defuse what they view as the rationale for Iran's transgressions: the fear that the U.S. troop presence in Iraq will be used to undermine the Tehran government. Both Iraq's Kurds and Shiites have vigorously lobbied leaders in Washington and Tehran to set aside their differences, at least when it comes to stabilizing Iraq.
"Instead of being a court of conflict and clashes between the two countries, officials in Iraq are still putting great efforts to improve this relationship between the three parties," said Sheik Hamid Muala, a lawmaker who is a member of the Supreme Assembly of Islamic Iraq, the party led by Shiite cleric Abdel-Aziz Hakim and his clan, which has deep family roots in Iran. "Instead of being a place for war, (Iraq) will be a place for peace."
But Muala and others acknowledged that more Iraqis have grown sensitive to Iran's role in their country.
"Whether we like it or not, the Iranian influence is at a very high level in Iraq," said Qassem Dawoud, an independent lawmaker with close ties to the Shiite clerical leadership in Najaf. "We really are looking forward to a period when this influence should disappear."
Abadi praised Iranian ambassador Hassan Kazemi-Qomi as one of only two foreign emissaries to Iraq who regularly make the rounds of ministries to facilitate business deals and increase professional contacts. Trade between the two countries now totals $8 billion a year, much of it in the form of Iranian food and consumer staple exports. Iran is arranging a $1 billion low-interest loan to the Iraqi government.
But U.S. and Iraqi officials allege that Iran's positive contributions come coupled with a host of other headaches. Specifically, they accuse Iran of supplying arms, training and direction to Shiite and Sunni paramilitary groups in an effort to shape events in Iraq. The U.S. military continues to hold nine Iranians accused of contributing to armed activity in Iraq.
"They are bringing in tomatoes, potatoes, gas and electricity," said Jawad Bolani, Iraq's Minister of Interior and a Shiite. "Some people say this is good. But then we also get rockets, weapons and missiles. It's a mix."
Abadi also said Iranians are interfering in Iraq's domestic politics, supporting one faction over another with infusions of cash.
"Iran wants to have all the cards in its hand. This is not the way to have good neighborly relations," he said. "If they deal with Iraq they should deal with the government."
But Iraqi officials point out that even the pro-American Persian Gulf monarchies such as the United Arab Emirates and Saudi Arabia have invited Ahmadinejad on state visits.
"This guy came to power by a democratic election," said Khudair Khuzai, Iraq's Minister of Education and a confidante of Maliki. "Whether he's radical or moderate, the Iranian people chose him."