Published: March 5, 2008
During his state visit to Iraq on Sunday and Monday, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad spoke of fraternal ties between the two countries, announced a billion-dollar reconstruction loan that will be used for contracts with Iranian firms, and said foreign forces should withdraw from Iraq immediately.
The irony was hardly lost on Iraqis and their neighbors. The virulently anti-American Ahmadinejad could only be received with pomp and ceremony by Iraq's president, prime minister and foreign minister because President George W. Bush's bungling has given Iran predominant influence in Iraq.
Ahmadinejad's meetings with senior Iraqi officials were staged to remind the rest of the world that key leaders and political factions in the Iraqi government have longstanding affinities with Tehran. This is true not only of the Shiite notables - Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki of the Dawa Party and Supreme Iraqi Islamic Council chairman Abdul Aziz al-Hakim - but also of Iraq's Kurdish president, Jalal Talabani. What most binds them to the regime in Tehran is their common history of suffering at the hands of Saddam Hussein's regime.
For Iraqi Kurds and Shiites, that history weighs heavily on the present. Iran sheltered Iraqi Arab Shiites who fled into exile in 1991, when Saddam's forces put down a popular uprising in the aftermath of the first Gulf war, massacring enormous numbers of Shiites. Bush's father had called for the uprising, but after it began, American forces in Iraq did nothing to stop the slaughter. Saddam's victims have not forgotten that betrayal. And they know that Iran lost hundreds of thousands of its people in the 1980-88 war with Saddam - while Washington, at the behest of its partners among the Arab states, was giving aid and satellite intelligence to Saddam.
None of the parties to today's many-sided conflict in Iraq will say as much in public, but the lines of antagonism are little different from what they were during the Iran-Iraq war and Saddam's suppression of the 1991 uprising. The Sunni Arab tribal groups that recently signed up with the Americans to combat Al Qaeda in Iraq make no secret of their enmity for Iraq's Shiite-dominated government. They regard that government as a stalking horse for Iran.
Bush has allowed the United States to be trapped in the middle of two superimposed conflicts: one between Sunni Arabs and Shiites in Iraq and another between Iran and the Sunni Arab world. To go on talking, as the Bush administration does, about a diffuse war on terrorism is to deny such complexities.
Ahmadinejad's visit to Iraq will be put to good use if it spurs Bush - or his successor - to resolve those two deadly regional power struggles through diplomatic deal-making, and with a minimum of continued violence.
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