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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

Ever since the ouster of Saddam's Sunni-dominated regime, political leaders in Iraq have sought to rebuild and strengthen relations with Iran, which has responded in kind. Many of Iraq's Shiites sought sanctuary in Iran during Saddam's reign, and some now hold key government posts.

Tehran has not been shy about wielding its influence. It was at Iran's urging that hardline Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr grudgingly threw his political support behind longtime foe Nouri al-Maliki, allowing him to remain prime minister in 2010 after falling short in national elections.

In return, al-Maliki last year all but ignored Iranian military incursions on Kurdish lands in northern Iraq. The government also has delayed, and in al-Sadr's case, quashed, arrest warrants on militants backed by Iranian forces and financiers.

Still, even some Iraqi Shiites, like the cleric al-Sadr and the cafe owner Salman, advocate retaining strong Iraqi nationalism and their Arab identity instead of becoming a Persian outpost.

Iraqi government spokesman Ali al-Dabbagh condemned the Khamenei posters and said they could add to the already-strained political unrest in the country. But he said the federal government is powerless to remove them.

"These posters are adding a new dispute in Iraq's politics and they might lead to a negative impact," al-Dabbagh said. "The local governments should deal with such situations," he said.

Sunnis were less diplomatic in their assessment.

Hamid al-Mutlaq, a leading lawmaker, blasted the poster campaign, which he said shows Iran's efforts to amass power in Iraq. Raad Abdul-Rahman, a government worker, said the posters prove that Iraq is becoming "a total Iranian stooge."

"In the past, we used to encounter the pictures of the Arab dictator Saddam," Abdul-Rahman said, referring to the posters and statues of the former president that used to be ubiquitous across Baghdad and the rest of the country. "But now pictures of the Persian dictator are taking over."

Associated Press Writer Sameer N. Yacoub contributed to this report.

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