by Sam Dagher, NEW YORK TIMES, Sunday, May 31, 2009 - Click headline above for link to full article; first paragraphs below.
Pilgrims and local residents pray at the Imam Hussein shrine in Karbala, Iraq. Most of the foreign pilgrims are Iranians, a sign of Iran’s growing influence in Iraq.
KARBALA, Iraq — Over just two days, about 80 Iranian pilgrims were killed in April in suicide bombings in Iraq. But even though the pilgrims are clearly a favored target for Sunni extremists in Iraq, and though the threat continues, it seems nothing will keep the Iranians from coming here.
Iraq allows up to 5,000 Iranian pilgrims to enter each day. The two countries have long had a complicated relationship.
The New York Times
Karbala’s economy depends on money spent by Iranians.
On a recent afternoon, a group of pilgrims from the Iranian city of Isfahan — many in tears and in a trancelike state — inched toward the shimmering golden-domed shrine ahead chanting “Hussein beloved” in Persian. Inside, Iranians jostled other pilgrims to grip the ornate gold and silver cagelike structure bearing the tomb of Prophet Muhammad’s grandson Imam Hussein, shrouded in green fabric embroidered with precious stones.
It is religious devotion that compels them to come. But Iran’s government is part of the equation, too, encouraging a greater Iranian presence in Iraq by supporting companies that control a lucrative segment of the pilgrimage business and renovating and maintaining Shiite shrines in Iraq.
While the United States and surrounding Arab nations worry about direct Iranian influence and support for armed groups, the pilgrimages present a small but important example of Iran’s rising soft power in Iraq. And it is something that makes Iraqis increasingly resentful.
Recently, the Interior Ministry banned Persian signs inside Karbala despite the fact most Iranian pilgrims speak no Arabic.
In April, Karbala’s residents demonstrated against the awarding of a contract to an Iranian company, Al Kawthar, to renovate the historic city center, including the area around the shrines of Imam Hussein and his brother Abu Fadhil al-Abbas, part of a $100-million project. Officials say they have been inundated with petitions against the Iranian proposal.
“We are Arabs, we will not accept to be colonized by anyone,” said Ali al-Hayawi, a hotel owner in Karbala catering to pilgrims, who is opposed to Iran’s involvement in the project. “We do not take orders from the Iranians.”
The dynamic in Karbala suggests that Iran may have a hard time exerting any deep sway among Iraqis, even among fellow Shiites, with suspicion playing out on several fronts. But at the national level, the relationship is more of a tug of war. The Iraqi government may want to keep Iran at arm’s length, but it also needs Iran economically and as a strategic ally.
Iran and Iraq have always had a contentious relationship, and it became more complicated with the American presence in Iraq.
3 years ago
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