Despite al-Maliki's longtime anger at Syria for serving as a haven for Baathist and al-Qaida extremists, Iraq now is backing embattled President Bashar Assad, an ally of Tehran. Iraq also has sided with Iran to support Bahrain's Shiites under assault by the tiny kingdom's Sunni monarchy.
In Mandali, a mixed Kurdish-Arab city about 60 miles (100 kilometers) northeast of Baghdad, local officials complain Iran is taking advantage of the poorly marked 906-mile (1,458 kilometers) border to claim Iraqi territory with little to no resistance from Baghdad.
In the southern port city of Basra, a half-hour from the Iranian border and 340 miles (550 kilometers) from Baghdad, Iran is helping supply electricity and cheap goods to Iraqis who would otherwise go without.
Last summer, Iranian First Vice President Mohammed Reza Rahimi led a 170-firm business delegation to Baghdad, a visit Western diplomats in Baghdad saw as an Iranian move to muscle in on its economically stagnant neighbor.
But Sami al-Araji, chairman of the National Investment Commission of Iraq, downplayed the concerns.
"We are open for business and for trade with all those who are desiring to come into Iraq and to participate," al-Araji said. "Let the politicians take care of the politics."
Ghanim Abdul-Amir, a Basra provincial councilman, hopes one aspect of Iran's role will wane once the Americans leave. He said he has long complained to Iranian officials about weapons being smuggled into Iraq. The Iranians replied that it won't stop until U.S. troops are gone.
"The Iranians' answer is that they cannot prevent people from fighting the occupier," Abdul-Amir said.
Ironically, it was the U.S. who opened Iraq's door to Iran by ousting Saddam's Sunni-dominated regime, allowing Shiite parties with historic ties to Tehran to rise to power. Iraq's Sunnis deeply fear Iranian domination and the potential they will be even further shut out of the political process.
Sunni powerhouse Saudi Arabia has also sought influence in Iraq, in part to counterbalance Iran. Saudi Arabia is believed to have funded Iraqiya, the Sunni-dominated but secular political alliance that won the most seats in Iraq's national election last year but was unable to form a government.
Parliament Speaker Osama al-Nujaifi, Iraq's highest-ranking Sunni politician, warned last month that "if neighboring countries" see Iraq as weak, "there will be interference ... This interference does exist now" — though he diplomatically avoided mentioning Iran directly.
In Mandali, Iran has left an indelible fingerprint on the city of 50,000.
"Iran has quit the idea of invading Iraq with its military," said resident Bassem Mohammed, a 45-year-old Kurd, who lost a leg in the Iran-Iraq war. "Now they are trying to occupy Iraq's politics."
Associated Press Writers Sameer N. Yacoub in Baghdad and Nabil al-Jurani in Basra, Iraq, contributed to this report.
Follow Lara Jakes on Twitter at www.twitter.com/larajakesAP
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