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As Iraq-Iran ties expand, so do worries of Arab allies, US

By Lara Jakes
Associated Press / July 7, 2011

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BAGHDAD - Iraq’s prime minister told a senior Iranian envoy yesterday that their economic bonds can expand as Baghdad signaled deepening ties with its anti-American neighbor despite worries from Washington and Arab allies.

The growing ties between Baghdad’s Shi’ite-led government and Shi’ite powerhouse Iran highlight one of the region’s major political shifts after the US-led invasion to topple Saddam Hussein, whose Sunni-dominated regime fought an eight-year war with Iran in the 1980s.

US-allied Arab states, particularly Saudi Arabia and its Gulf neighbors, worry about expanding Iranian influence as Washington draws down forces in Iraq. Iran is also being accused of encouraging opposition uprisings in Bahrain and other Gulf states.

The United States has deep concerns over Iran’s links to Shi’ite militias and political groups in Iraq, where security is still shaky less than six months before the US deadline to pull out all military forces. It is a main reason why the Obama administration is offering to keep between 8,500 and 10,000 troops in Iraq next year if Baghdad requests a continued US military presence, American officials say.

Iraq’s prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki, and Iran’s first vice president, Mohammed Reza Rahimi, signed six agreements to bolster shared economic, health, technology, and culture interests. Rahimi was in Baghdad on the first of a three-day visit to meet with business leaders and, in part, press Iraq to invest in Iran’s health and energy markets.

“We have forgotten all the pains of the past as we are now enjoying good and growing relations between the two friendly countries. . . . We have come to push the relations to their highest level,’’ Rahimi told TV reporters who were hand-picked to cover the signing ceremony in Baghdad.

Maliki kept his job last year only with the political help of an Iranian-backed Shi’ite group. Iraq depends on Iran for about 10 percent of its daily electric power - one of Baghdad’s most tenuous resources. Iraq’s searing summer months, when air conditioning outages push public tempers to the boiling point, can spark antigovernment riots and political unrest.

US officials say Iran clearly wants the American military to leave Iraq and point to the recent increase in attacks against US soldiers. Fifteen US troops died in Iraq in June, the deadliest month for the military here in two years. Nearly all were killed by Shi’ite militias that are supplied and trained by Iran.

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