Maliki's Iran Years

Decades later, the memory still rankles Iraq's prime minister. Nuri al-Maliki was an exile in southern Iran at the time, running covert Iraqi networks against Saddam Hussein, and Iran and Iraq were at war. Maliki needed official Iranian clearance to enter the border area, but Maliki's Iranian handlers liked to make life difficult: one of them announced that a pass could be obtained only from another Iranian official, a 12-hour drive away in blustery winter weather. When the road-weary Maliki finally got there, his application was summarily rejected.

In isolation, the incident might have been merely a nuisance, but to Maliki it was just another piece in a vast pattern of condescension and sabotage by the Iranians. Years after being sent on that fool's errand, Maliki spotted the former handler from a distance at an official function in Damascus. As the prime minister recounts the story now, according to his ally Sami al-Askari, Maliki quietly warned a friend: "If he comes near me, I'll take my shoes off and hit him in the head."

With America's involvement in Iraq beginning to wind down, many Westerners share the concern of Arab leaders that the big winner will be Iran. Maliki's domestic opponents, the Sunni hardliners especially, already complain that his Shia-led administration is a proxy for its coreligionists in Tehran—that "an Iranian government" controls Iraq. And the fact is that the Iranians now exert more influence inside Iraq than they have for centuries. The leverage takes many forms: not only cross-border trade and direct lobbying by envoys in Baghdad, but also covert links to Shia militants and assassination teams. Even so, Iraq's leaders are scarcely inclined to take orders from Tehran. They're Arabs, not Persians, and they've learned what confidants say Maliki long ago found out the hard way: Iran rigorously pursues its own national interests, regardless of their shared Shia faith. The Iraqis respond in kind: Maliki's government uses the Iranian threat as a way to extract concessions from Iraq's nervous Arab neighbors and the West—if they don't help Maliki, the Iranians will. Nevertheless, the prime minister's personal view might be better summed up in an old Iraqi proverb he's been known to quote when speaking of Baghdad's "friends" in Tehran: "They'll take you to the water and bring you back thirsty."

Maliki's personal experiences say a lot about the limits of Iran's influence over Iraq's leaders. The prime minister's political organization, the Islamic Dawa Party, began as a Shia revivalist movement—in Iraq, not in Iran—and gained national importance in the 1970s as Saddam's main internal opposition. (Al Dawa is Arabic for "The Call.") Saddam did all he could to eradicate the group. The party says more than 200,000 Iraqis died in the purges: Dawa members, relatives of members, friends of those relatives, anyone with connections of any sort to the party.

Maliki fled Iraq in October 1979, only steps ahead of Saddam's police. He would return many times with Dawa guerrilla bands to Iraq's southern marshes or the mountains of northern Kurdistan. In those years he adopted pseudonyms—"Mr. Mohseni" in Iran and "Jawad Maliki" in Syria—to protect his relatives from Saddam's secret police. Still, dozens in his extended family were killed.

Dawa members credit Iran with giving them sanctuary when no one else would. They and the Iranians shared a hatred of Saddam when most other countries, including the United States, backed their enemy in Baghdad. Tehran's support for the Iraqi guerrillas grew with the 1980 outbreak of the Iran-Iraq War, and a year later the Iranian government let them set up housekeeping at a camp that had been abandoned by a South Korean oil company. The camp, about 13 miles from the Iranian city of Ahwaz, was in a predominantly Arab area near the border, convenient for staging raids into Iraq. The group named its new home after Mohammed Bakr al-Sadr, a Dawa founder and venerated Shia cleric who had been tortured and executed by Saddam. Several hundred fighters bunked in joined wooden trailers, usually four to a room, well supplied with electricity and water. They received military training from Dawa members who had served in Saddam's Army.

With daily religious and political indoctrination, the camp became what Dawa elder and camp founder Hussein al-Shami calls "a lush oasis." Dawa shared the Iranians' enthusiasm for the fledgling Islamic Revolution, even though they answered to a different clerical leadership. Jaafar Sadek al-Dujaili, a mullah who lived in the camp, recalls how the fighters at midday and evening prayers would chant: "Religion is always victorious! Long live Sadr!" Maliki gave regular seminars on politics and hung out in fatigues with an egalitarian mix of doctors, clerics and unschooled Dawa loyalists. "Martyrdom will strengthen our roots, not uproot us," he promised.

But Dawa's idyll didn't last. The Iraqis disliked the Iranian model of an Islamic government led by a supreme cleric, and the Iranians kept trying to take control of the Iraqis' guerrilla war against Saddam. There were disputes over control of the camp's entrances and access to the border. "We used to ask why, as religious people, they were doing this to us," says Dujaili. He remembers Maliki urging patience, but finally the Iranians unilaterally decided to reorganize the anti-Saddam Iraqis into a new group, the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI). Some Dawa members joined but most refused or eventually dropped out. "SCIRI was the spoiled son [of Iran]," says Izzat al-Shabander, who split from Dawa in the 1970s but lived in Iran and stayed friendly with party members. (He's now a member of the Iraqi Parliament.)

Iraqis who were at the camp describe the run-up to its handover to SCIRI. They say Maliki, a camp leader at the time, held meetings to promise the angry rank and file that Dawa's struggle would continue. Talib al-Hassan, a Maliki adviser who has recently been named governor of Thiqar province in southern Iraq, recalls the day in early 1983 when Maliki stood at the camp's main mosque and told the fighters that they were free to stay or go. "But the Dawa Party will have nothing to do with this camp anymore," he announced.

Tehran gave its full support to the camp's new occupants. Captured Iraqi Shia troops were allowed to join SCIRI's fighting ranks, rather than being tossed into a POW camp. While Dawa's influence dwindled, its run-ins with the Iranians continued. Hassan recounts how he went to renew his and Maliki's immigration cards, only to be told by an Iranian functionary that written approval from SCIRI was needed. One of the worst moments came when Saddam threatened airstrikes on Ahwaz. Townspeople were fleeing for their lives when Maliki knocked on Hassan's door and asked for his help; Maliki's wife had just delivered a son by Caesarean, and the hospital was being evacuated. The two men raced to carry her, her IV drip and the baby down the hospital steps to a car heading out of town—with no help from the Iranians. "They didn't care about us," Hassan says.

Acquaintances say Maliki was anything but sorry to leave Iran when he moved to Syria. (Sources differ on the date, but his official biography says it was in 1990.) His Farsi is even worse than his English, according to friends. "You can only learn a language if you love the people," Shami remarks. All the same, Maliki and other Shia leaders in Iraq have not forgotten that Iran was the first neighbor to recognize the U.S.-sponsored Iraqi Governing Council in 2003. Nor have they forgotten the snubs of Arab governments in the region. While other powers like Saudi Arabia and Egypt refused to open embassies in Baghdad, Iran kept its mission open and stayed engaged. And during the sectarian bloodshed of 2006, money and weapons from Iran helped Iraq's Shia defend themselves. No other regional head of state had visited Iraq before Iran's President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad paid a call last year. (An Iraqi official says American diplomats tried to discourage the trip but finally gave in and facilitated Ahmadinejad's travels from Baghdad airport to the Green Zone.)

Maliki has grown bolder lately about asserting Iraq's independence. "As he sees his fortunes go up, you can see him trying to put distance between himself and the Iranians, [just] as he's tried to put more distance between himself and the Americans," says Wayne White, a former State Department analyst. But the Iranians have been pushing back. Dawa parliamentarian Haider al-Abadi quotes the prime minister as saying that last year's drive against militants in Basra uncovered a "snake" that stretched across the eastern border. After government forces captured a notorious Iranian-backed militant, the Basra resistance intensified. "This is from the Iranians," Maliki told colleagues gathered in his improvised Basra war room. To save face, Iran organized talks between senior Dawa figures and radical cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, whose troops were armed by Iran. Shabander remembers Maliki at a security conference after the shooting stopped, warning the Sadrists that their Iranian backers could not be trusted. "Those who give you rockets to attack others today will give rockets to others to attack you tomorrow," he told them.

Skeptics say Dawa will always be in bed with Iran, willingly or otherwise. Shabander, who has known Dawa's leadership since the 1970s, says Maliki is surrounded by senior party members with Iranian loyalties who enable Tehran to "run Dawa by remote control," in his words. On the other hand, Dawa members know from experience what a fickle ally Tehran can be. "The Iranians are not necessarily straight. They may say one thing and do something else," says Zuhair al-Naher, Dawa's spokesman in London. "With the Americans there will also be some level of skepticism—but often the Americans have said things and followed through."

There's no way to eliminate Tehran's influence. Iraqi officials note that Iran's $4 billion annual trade with their country is second only to Turkey's $5 billion. And, if necessary, the Iranians can create chaos through the armed militants they continue to support. Maliki suspects one Iranian Revolutionary Guard commander in particular, Qassam Suleimani, of now and then subtly threatening to engineer his ouster, according to Shabander. (Maliki aides deny any such worries.) An American adviser in Baghdad, who asked not to be named discussing Iraqi internal matters, says ranking Iraqis even fear that Iran could attempt to assassinate leaders who stand in their way.

Still, Dawa may finally be settling old scores with the upstarts who took over its exile camp a quarter century ago. This past January, Maliki's party defeated the Supreme Council for the first time in local elections. Tensions are rising between the two longtime rivals, and Tehran seems worried that its favored party may be in trouble. With parliamentary elections due early next year, Iran is pushing Maliki to maintain a coalition with the Supreme Council. "They want everyone to return to one united power," says senior Dawa figure Ali al-Adeeb.

This time, however, Maliki is expected to insist on leading the coalition. Otherwise, party allies say, he has enough support from Sunnis to form a mixed coalition. If they're right, it would bring Iraq that much closer to national reconciliation, and push the country that much further outside Iran's ambit. The question is whether the Iranians are prepared to let that happen—and how far they might go to prevent it.