Kaplow, Larry, Newsweek
Byline: Larry Kaplow; With Hussam Ali and Saad Al-Izzi in Baghdad and Hassan Al-Jarrah in Najaf
Nuri Al-Maliki steps out of Iran's shadow.
Decades later, the memory still rankles Iraq's prime minister. Nuri al-Maliki was an exile in southern Iran at the time, running covert Iraqi networks against Saddam Hussein, and Iran and Iraq were at war. Maliki needed official Iranian clearance to enter the border area, but Maliki's Iranian handlers liked to make life difficult: one of them announced that a pass could be obtained only from another Iranian official, a 12-hour drive away in blustery winter weather. When the road-weary Maliki finally got there, his application was summarily rejected.
In isolation, the incident might have been merely a nuisance, but to Maliki it was just another piece in a vast pattern of condescension and sabotage by the Iranians. Years after being sent on that fool's errand, Maliki spotted the former handler from a distance at an official function in Damascus. As the prime minister recounts the story now, according to his ally Sami al-Askari, Maliki quietly warned a friend: "If he comes near me, I'll take my shoes off and hit him in the head."
With America's involvement in Iraq beginning to wind down, many Westerners share the concern of Arab leaders that the big winner will be Iran. Maliki's domestic opponents, the Sunni hardliners especially, already complain that his Shia-led administration is a proxy for its coreligionists in Tehran--that "an Iranian government" controls Iraq. And the fact is that the Iranians now exert more influence inside Iraq than they have for centuries. The leverage takes many forms: not only cross-border trade and direct lobbying by envoys in Baghdad, but also covert links to Shia militants and assassination teams. Even so, Iraq's leaders are scarcely inclined to take orders from Tehran. They're Arabs, not Persians, and they've learned what confidants say Maliki long ago found out the hard way: Iran rigorously pursues its own national interests, regardless of their shared Shia faith. The Iraqis respond in kind: Maliki's government uses the Iranian threat as a way to extract concessions from Iraq's nervous Arab neighbors and the West--if they don't help Maliki, the Iranians will. Nevertheless, the prime minister's personal view might be better summed up in an old Iraqi proverb he's been known to quote when speaking of Baghdad's "friends" in Tehran: "They'll take you to the water and bring you back thirsty."
Maliki's personal experiences say a lot about the limits of Iran's influence over Iraq's leaders. The prime minister's political organization, the Islamic Dawa Party, began as a Shia revivalist movement--in Iraq, not in Iran--and gained national importance in the 1970s as Saddam's main internal opposition. (Al Dawa is Arabic for "The Call.") Saddam did all he could to eradicate the group. The party says more than 200,000 Iraqis died in the purges: Dawa members, relatives of members, friends of those relatives, anyone with connections of any sort to the party.
Maliki fled Iraq in October 1979, only steps ahead of Saddam's police. He would return many times with Dawa guerrilla bands to Iraq's southern marshes or the mountains of northern Kurdistan. In those years he adopted pseudonyms--"Mr. Mohseni" in Iran and "Jawad Maliki" in Syria--to protect his relatives from Saddam's secret police. Still, dozens in his extended family were killed.
Dawa members credit Iran with giving them sanctuary when no one else would. They and the Iranians shared a hatred of Saddam when most other countries, including the United States, backed their enemy in Baghdad. Tehran's support for the Iraqi guerrillas grew with the 1980 outbreak of the Iran-Iraq War, and a year later the Iranian government let them set up housekeeping at a camp that had been abandoned by a South Korean oil company. The camp, about 13 miles from the Iranian city of Ahwaz, was in a predominantly Arab area near the border, convenient for staging raids into Iraq. …