Sunday, March 28, 2010

Analysis: Allawi win could curb Iran's influence

By HAMZA HENDAWI
Associated Press Writer
Sat Mar 27, 3:25 pm ET

CAIRO – The surprisingly strong election showing by a secular, nationalist coalition in Iraq has provided a sudden opening for the mostly Sunni Arab world to curtail Iranian influence in Iraq, something that has been a source of serious alarm for the United States and its Arab allies since 2003.

The banner headline in Asharq al-Awsat, an influential newspaper in Saudi Arabia, said it all — "The Awakening of Moderation in Iraq" — offering an immediate endorsement of Iraq's top vote-getter by the regional Sunni Arab powerhouse.

The Iraqiya coalition led by Ayad Allawi, a secular Shiite who has campaigned for better ties with the Arab world and keeping neighboring Iran at a distance, won 91 of the new legislature's 325 seats, edging Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's mainly Shiite bloc by only two seats. Allawi was prime minister in 2004-05.

The narrow win foreshadowed possibly months of hard-nosed negotiations over the formation of a new government. But Allawi's numerical victory was triumph enough for the mostly Sunni Arab regimes that have been wary of Shiite-dominated Iraqi governments since the 2003 U.S. invasion that ousted Saddam Hussein.

Sunni Arab governments have long kept their distance from Iraq's postwar governments. They have declined to send full ambassadors — first because of the U.S. occupation, then because of the precarious security and more recently because of their anger over perceived Iranian influence. But they have begun warming toward Iraq, and Allawi's ascension would likely tip the balance.

The United States has long maintained that Iran was fomenting violence in Iraq. Washington charges that Tehran provides Shiite militiamen with money, weapons and training and blames the deaths of hundreds of American soldiers in Iraq on a particularly effective brand of roadside bomb it says is supplied by Iran.

U.S. officials also claimed the banning by a Shiite-led vetting body of hundreds of candidates from running in the March 7 election for their alleged ties to the Saddam regime was inspired by Tehran. Many of those blacklisted were Sunni Arabs. Iran denies the allegations.

Significantly deepening the concern has been Iran's disputed nuclear program and its alleged support for militant groups like Lebanon's Hezbollah and the Palestinian Hamas in Gaza.

Iran has not officially commented on the election results, which were reported by the state-run news agency without comment. However, a senior lawmaker charged Saturday that Washington and Saudi Arabia had exerted their influence to get their favorite candidates elected.

"That's why the Iraqi elections have definitely been rigged," hard-line lawmaker Esmaeil Kowsari said.

Iran's main challenge to the region — building a sphere of influence extending from Iraq all the way to Syria, Lebanon and the Gaza Strip — makes any Iraqi leader with an anti-Iranian policy a favorite for Arab governments.

Although a Shiite, Allawi is no exception and has enjoyed friendly relations with Sunni powers like Saudi Arabia, Egypt, Jordan and the United Arab Emirates for years.

"Allawi will be able to strengthen Iraq's relations with the Arab world and will also be able to initiate contacts and improve relations with countries in the region," said Hani Horani, director of the New Jordan Research Center in Amman, Jordan. "He's capable of establishing balanced relations with all Arab countries and reversing Iraq's tendency to lean toward Iran."

The Asharq al-Awsat newspaper headline, which reflected relief as much as joy, mirrors the thinking in Saudi Arabia on Allawi's victory and al-Maliki's potential departure. The daily is owned by powerful members of the Saudi royal family and religiously toes the oil-rich kingdom's foreign policy line.

It is not certain at this point that Allawi will succeed al-Maliki as prime minister, but he stands a good chance if his bloc is able to join forces with enough other political groupings to gain an influential majority.

Even so, there are doubts over Allawi's ability to end or greatly reduce the influence of Iran's hard-line clerical regime, but sentiment against Tehran has been growing among ordinary Iraqis as well.

"Allawi is the hope of all Iraqis," said Fakhry Zaboun, a taxi driver from eastern Baghdad. "He will face up to the Iranians who want to occupy Iraq when the Americans leave."

The subsequent extent of Allawi's success in reducing Iran's influence in Iraq would depend to a large extent on who would be his partners in the next government.

His most likely options are the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council, a large Shiite party established with Iranian backing in Tehran in the early 1980s; and supporters of anti-U.S. cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, also believed to be linked to the Iranians.

It is doubtful that these two groups would be willing to entirely relinquish their ties with Iran anytime soon, but they could be persuaded to reduce or tone down the more conspicuous manifestations of their ties with Tehran if Allawi demands it as a condition for their participation in his government.

Iran and Iraq both have majority Shiite populations, and are bound by strong religious ties. Iraq also is home to some of the Islamic sect's holiest shrines, which are visited by millions of Iranians every year. Many in Iraq's Shiite political elite lived in exile in Iran for years during Saddam's rule.

Allawi, in contrast, spent most of his years in exile in Britain.

However, the two nations fought a ruinous, eight-year war in the 1980s in which a million people were killed or wounded. Memories of that conflict continue to feed mutual suspicion between Iraqis and Iranians.

Bonds of such complexity and strength are virtually impossible to eradicate, but there is much more leeway when it comes to Iran's political meddling in its neighbor. Furthermore, it is unrealistic to expect any Iraqi government to be outright hostile toward the country's powerful neighbor.

Amr Hamzawy, director of Middle East research at Carnegie — a Washington-based think tank — sees a gradual rather than instant effort by Allawi to reduce Iranian influence.

"There will certainly be a change of rhetoric, but nothing will change fast on the ground," he said.

___

Hamza Hendawi is the AP's Middle East correspondent and has covered Iraq since 2003.

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