Ayatollah Ali Khamenei (photo), Iran’s supreme leader, told Iraq’s prime minister on Monday that the biggest obstacle to Iraqi stability was the presence of the American forces.
This message was the most authoritative public word to date on Iran’s objections to long-term security agreements, currently under negotiation between the Bush administration and the government of Iraq’s prime minister, Nuri Kamal al-Maliki.
The United Nations resolution, under which the American military has been operating in Iraq expires at the end of this year.
Ayatollah Khamenei told Iraq’s prime minister, during a meeting that was part of his three-day visit to Iran, that “the most fundamental problem of Iraq is the presence of the foreign forces”, according to excerpts of their meeting reported by the news agency ISNA.
“The Iraqi government, Parliament and all the authorities who have been elected with public vote should take charge”, said the ayatollah.
The American military presence in Iraq has been strongly opposed by Iranian officials, who consider it as a major threat on their border. But in the same time Iran got rid of its hated enemy, Saddam Hussein, thanks to the American-led effort. The Iraq war also brought about a coalition government in Baghdad, dominated by Shiite political leaders, like Nuri Kamal al-Maliki (photo), with strong ties to Iran.
“When a foreign force gradually increases its interference and domination in all the affairs of Iraq, it becomes the most important obstacle in development and prosperity of the Iraqi people”, said the ayatollah, without directly referring to the security agreements.
But the Iranian accounts of the meeting between Ayatollah Khamenei and Iraq’s prime minister did not give Maliki’s response. But on Sunday he had assured Iranian authorities that his country would not become “a platform for harming the security of Iran and its neighbors”.
Under the Bush administration, tensions between the governments in Tehran and Washington have escalated. The US has accused the Iranians of working on a nuclear weapons program in secret and of financing and supplying deadly weapons to anti-American militants in Iraq.
Long-term military bases
Iran denies the accusations. And in Iraq, negotiations over the security pact have become a major political issue, further splitting Shiite allies of Maliki and the political movement of Moktada al-Sadr, the radical Shiite cleric.
Last month, The New York Times reported that aides to Maliki from his Dawa Party said that American negotiators were demanding continued control of Iraqi airspace, immunity for American soldiers and security contractors, authority for more than 50 long-term bases, and the right to continue to carry out unimpeded military operations.
According to Ali Adeeb, a senior Dawa official close to Maliki said that Iraqi officials object to those terms. He added that they are particularly insistent about limiting immunity for security contractors and ensuring that future American military operations are restricted and have the blessing of the Iraqi government.
Some Iraqi officials have also complained that while the American military would maintain a large presence under the pact, it would not be obligated to protect the Iraqi government from aggression, either from outside or inside its borders.
Any plans for long-term military bases have been denied by American officials, even though they have acknowledged that they are seeking some other terms that Iraqi officials object to.
The occupation has long been opposed by the Sadrists, who also complain that without the backing of American military forces, Mr Maliki’s recent operations against Sadr militiamen in Basra and Baghdad never would have succeeded.
Iraq’s prime minister’s political allies have been excoriated last week, by Sadrist clerics during Friday Prayer, over their recent criticism of elements of the proposed security pact. They say their public comments were only a pretense and that they were sure to sign the agreement after making minor changes.
“Shall we follow those who refuse the agreement totally, or shall we follow those who temporarily refuse it, but who will later agree to it after making some amendments?” said Sheik Salah al-Obaidi, a top Sadrist official, during prayers in Kufa, where he singled out Mr Maliki’s Dawa Party and the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq, another powerful Shiite party.