Los Angeles Times: As Iraq lurches toward elections this month, its neighbor Iran is emerging as one of the hottest campaign issues. Iraq's outspoken defense minister fired one of the first salvos last month, charging that the front-running slate, the Shiite Muslim-dominated United Iraqi Alliance, was controlled by Tehran and was determined to "build an Islamic dictatorship and have turbaned clerics rule in Iraq." The minister, Hazem Shaalan, is a Shiite, but is running on a rival, more secular slate. Los Angeles Times

Connections to Tehran have become a pet target in the campaign, with some alleging meddling.

By Edmund Sanders, Times Staff Writer

BAGHDAD — As Iraq lurches toward elections this month, its neighbor Iran is emerging as one of the hottest campaign issues.

Iraq's outspoken defense minister fired one of the first salvos last month, charging that the front-running slate, the Shiite Muslim-dominated United Iraqi Alliance, was controlled by Tehran and was determined to "build an Islamic dictatorship and have turbaned clerics rule in Iraq."

The minister, Hazem Shaalan, is a Shiite, but is running on a rival, more secular slate.

Part of the focus on Iran is pure politics. In light of the nations' history of rivalry and eight-year war in the 1980s, the mention of Iran is a convenient way to attack candidates, spook citizens and galvanize voters, experts say. Many leaders of the alliance's leading party, the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq, spent years in exile in Iran after fleeing Saddam Hussein's regime.

But the debate is also raising serious questions about what sort of government Iraqis will choose Jan. 30, what role religion should play in the constitution and how much influence Iran will wield over the next crop of Iraqi leaders.

"It's both electioneering and there is a real concern. The debate is to what extent these [Iraqi political parties"> truly are a fifth column for Iran," said a high-ranking Western diplomat in Baghdad, speaking on condition of anonymity.

"Iran obviously has influence here. They have all sorts of people running around here doing all kinds of things, most of which we heartily disapprove of."

Unlike in most of the Middle East, Shiite Muslims constitute majorities in Iraq and Iran. In Iraq, Shiites were long oppressed by Hussein, who belonged to the Sunni Muslim minority.

In Iran, Shiite clerics led a revolution against the monarchy, installing a government run by ayatollahs. Critics say Iran hopes to see a similar theocracy installed in Iraq.

Jordan's King Abdullah II accused Iran of smuggling nearly 1 million people into Iraq to vote this month, a claim Iranian officials dismissed as ludicrous and an "insult" to Iraq.

Interim Iraqi President Ghazi Ajil Yawer, a Sunni who is heading his own slate of candidates, raised the specter of a Shiite-dominated geopolitical "crescent" stretching from Iran through Iraq to Lebanon.

Rival candidates, both Sunni and Shiite, claim that Iran is secretly pumping millions of dollars into the leading Iraqi Shiite parties.

U.S. troops guarding the Iraqi border recently confiscated nearly $200,000 reportedly being smuggled from Iran. But in the absence of campaign-finance laws and given the long, porous border with Iran, tracking money from any foreign country remains difficult, officials said.

"The problem is, you can't prove it," said Sheik Jamal Din, a Shiite cleric who is running against the alliance. "But everyone knows that the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq has been raised and nourished by the Iranians. They are 100% in the pockets of Iran."

In southern Iraq, links between Iran and the Shiite parties are undeniable.

Supplies ranging from motorcycles to shortwave radios have been flowing across the border to help with election planning and preparation. Iranian intelligence officials openly roam the hallways at party offices and Persian is sometimes the preferred language. Pictures of Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, hang on party office walls and even in government offices.

On a recent visit to the offices of the Basra governor, interim Iraqi Prime Minister Iyad Allawi reportedly quipped, "Am I in Basra or Iran?"

Leaders of the United Iraqi Alliance say they have no intentions of seeking an Iranian-style theocracy in Iraq but do want Islamic principles to be incorporated in governance.

"We have never called for the formation of an Islamic government that resembles Iran," said Abdelaziz Hakim, chairman of the Supreme Council. "Our intentions are clear."

At the same time, leaders insist that Iraq's next government, regardless of who forms it, will need to forge better ties with Iran in the interests of regional peace and stability.

"America is not going to be here forever," Mowaffak Rubaie, Iraq's national security advisor and an alliance candidate. "Iran is here to stay."

The bulk of the attacks are aimed at the two top-billed parties of the alliance, the Supreme Council and the Islamic Dawa Party. Outlawed under Hussein, who called them traitors, both parties sought refuge in Iran during the 1980s and 1990s.

Iraq's leading Shiite cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, who helped pull together the alliance and is the leading proponent of a Jan. 30 vote, was born in Iran. He moved to Iraq in 1951 and speaks Arabic with a slight Iranian accent.

Top leaders of the two parties also spent time in Iran, including Hakim, nuclear physicist Hussein Shahristani of the Supreme Council and Ibrahim Jafari of Dawa. The slate includes onetime Pentagon favorite Ahmad Chalabi, who has been forging closer ties with Iran since his fallout with the U.S. last summer.

But members of the 228-candidate alliance bristle at the suggestion that their slate is a pawn of Iran, calling such attacks mudslinging by desperate rivals.

"We are one of the strongest slates, so of course other people are trying to frighten voters," said Adel Abdul Mahdi, Iraq's finance minister and a member of the alliance. "But it's not going to work. On the contrary, these attacks are making the slate more united and more mobilized."

Unlike the U.S. elections, citizens in Iraq will cast their vote for a single slate of ranked candidates, who will be allotted seats in the transitional national assembly based on how many votes they get. The assembly will then draft a constitution.

Iraqi citizens are ambivalent about the sort of government they prefer and what role religion should play in it, according to recent polls.

In August, a survey of 2,846 Iraqis by the International Republican Institute found that 85% agreed that Islamic law should be used as the "sole basis" of legislation and the drafting of the constitution. In a separate question, only 37% favored a secular system that protected the rights of all groups, according to the institute, a democracy-building group linked to the U.S. Republican Party.

In November, respondents seemed more evenly divided, with 50% supporting separation of government and religion and 42% saying that religion should enjoy a "special role" in government.

Iranian officials say they hope an election this month will lead to a secure and stable neighbor, and encourage foreign powers — particularly the United States — to stay out of Iraq's affairs.

"The participation of all national and patriotic segments is considered a vital step in administrating Iraq's affairs by its own people, and in the departure of foreign forces from its land," Iranian Foreign Minister Kamal Kharrazi said last week.

But Iranians are sensitive to allegations of interference.

Kharrazi boycotted a conference last week in Jordan regarding Iraq's future, a move widely interpreted as a protest over the king's accusations that Iran was sending voters into Iraq.

Alliance candidates skirt the issue of whether Iran is directly funding their parties. When pressed, participants said the alliance would not accept funds from Iran but that individual parties might. The parties, including the Supreme Council and Dawa, have refused to say whether they get money from Iran.

At the same time, alliance leaders insist that money isn't crucial. The slate plans to spend about $750,000 on the campaign, candidate Sheik Humam Hamoodi said.

"Our list is blessed by the Grand Ayatollah Sistani," he said. "It doesn't need any money."

And if the alliance needed additional funds, it would not have to turn to Iran, Chalabi said. Responding to a recent report that Iran allegedly had sent $20 million to key Shiite parties in Iraq, he said, "There is plenty of money in Iraq. It's not difficult to raise that kind of money."

One funding option under consideration is asking Shiite clerics to hand over part of the collections they receive in mosques, which raise hundreds of thousands of dollars a month, Hamoodi said.

U.S. officials in Iraq are watching Iran closely, trying to separate myth from fact.

The electoral system is designed to make it difficult for any single group to dominate the new government, but American diplomats say they are not worried about a possibly big Shiite victory because they doubt Iraqis would support an Iranian-style government.

"I trust the Iraqi people, and the Shia community in particular, not to be looking to import the rule of the mullahs," said one Western official working on the election, speaking on condition of anonymity.

"Iran is a very different country. The [Shiite parties"> are not a stalking horse for some kind of Iranian thrust into Iraq or anywhere else. Their loyalty is first and foremost to Iraq."

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(BEGIN TEXT OF INFOBOX)

Sunni dominance

Most of the world' Muslims are members of the Sunni sect. But in Iraq, Iran, Bahrain and Azerbaijan, Shiites form the majority.



Nation % Sunni % Shiite


1. Jordan 92 Less than 2


2. Egypt 90 Less than 1


3. Saudi Arabia 89-90 10-11


4. Afghanistan 84 15


5. Turkey 83-93 Less than 1


6. United Arab Emirates 81 15


7. Pakistan 77 20


8. Syria 74 16*


9. Yemen 70 30


10. Kuwait 60 25


11. Iraq 32-37 60-65


12. Bahrain 30 70


13. Azerbaijan 29 67


14. Lebanon 23 38


15. Oman 18-25 Less than 1


16. Iran 10 89




*Comprises all other Muslims, including Druzes

Note: Totals may not add to 100% because they exclude Christians and other minorities

Source: Congressional Research Service, Times reporting

Graphics reporting by TOM REINKEN and SCOTT WILSON

*


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Times staff writer Ashraf Khalil in Baghdad and special correspondent Othman Ghanim in Basra contributed to this report.

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