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Iran ayatollah is poster boy for influence in Iraq

By Qassim Abdul-zahra

Associated Press

Published: Tuesday, Sept. 25 2012 12:30 a.m. MDT

In this photo Sept. 16, 2012, photo, a poster depicting Iran's supreme leader Ayatollah Khamenei, right, and Iraqi supreme leader Ayatollah Mohammed Sadiq al-Sadr, late father of the radical anti-U.S. cleric Muqtada al Sadr in Baghdad, Iraq. After years of growing influence, a new sign of Iran’s presence in Iraq has hit the streets. Thousands of signs, that is, depicting Iran’s supreme leader gently smiling to a population once mobilized against the Islamic Republic in eight years of war.

Karim Kadim, Associated Press

BAGHDAD — After years of growing influence, a new sign of Iran's presence in Iraq has hit the streets. Thousands of signs, that is, depicting Iran's supreme leader gently smiling to a population once mobilized against the Islamic Republic in eight years of war.

The campaign underscores widespread doubts over just how independent Iraq and its majority Shiite Muslim population can remain from its eastern neighbor, the region's Shiite heavyweight, now that U.S. troops have left the country.

The posters of Grand Ayatollah Ali Khamenei first appeared in at least six Shiite neighborhoods in Baghdad and across Iraq's Shiite-dominated south in August, as part of an annual pro-Palestinian observance started years ago by Iran. They have conspicuously remained up since then.

"When I see these pictures, I feel I am in Tehran, not Baghdad," said Asim Salman, 44, a Shiite and owner of a Baghdad cafe. "Authorities must remove these posters, which make us angry."

In Basra, located 550 kilometers (340 miles) south of the capital, they hang near donation boxes decorated with scripts in both countries' languages — Arabic and Farsi.

A senior official in Baghdad's local government said municipal workers fear retribution from Shiite militias loyal to Iran in if they take them down. He himself spoke on condition anonymity out of concerns for his safety.

One such militia, Asaib Ahl al-Haq, even boasted that it launched the poster campaign, part of a trend that's chipping away at nearly a decade's worth of U.S.-led efforts to bring a Western-style democracy here.

Sheik Ali al-Zaidi, a senior official in the militia, said they distributed some 20,000 posters of Khamenei across Iraq. He said Khamenei "enjoys public support all over the world" including Iraq, where he "is hailed as a political and religious leader."

Asaib Ahl al-Haq, or Band of the People of Righteousness, carried out deadly attacks against U.S. troops before their withdrawal last year. This month, the group threatened U.S. interests in Iraq as part of the backlash over a film mocking the Prophet Muhammad.

Iraqi and U.S. intelligence officials have estimated that Iran sends the militia about $5 million in cash and weapons each month. The officials believe there are fewer than 1,000 Asaib Ahl al-Haq militiamen, and that their leaders live in Iran.

Tensions between Iraq and Iran have never fully dissipated over their 1980-1988 war that left nearly half a million dead. But Iran's clout with Iraq's Shiites picked up after Saddam Hussein's fall from power in 2003, and, in many ways, accelerated since the U.S. military pulled out.

Iran has backed at least three Shiite militias in Iraq with weapons, training and millions of dollars in funding. Billion-dollar trade pacts have emerged between Tehran and Baghdad, and Iran has opened at least two banks in Iraq that are blacklisted by the United States.

Religious ties also have been renewed, with thousands of Iranian pilgrims visiting holy Shiite sites in Iraq daily, including in Najaf, where Iranian rials are as common a currency as Iraqi dinars, and Farsi is easily understood.

The posters may reflect a push among some Shiite groups for a clerical system similar to Iran's. Tehran is widely believed to be lobbying for a member of its ruling theocracy, Grand Ayatollah Mahmoud Hashemi Shahroudi, to succeed Iraq's 81-year-old Shiite spiritual leader, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani.

Al-Sistani opposes a formal political role for Iraq's religious establishment, while Shahroudi is part of Iran's system of "velayat-e-faqih," or rule by Islamic clerics. Iraq's Sunnis and Kurds, however, have no taste for blurring Shiite politics and religion.

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