An interesting snapshot from December 2009 in Iraq: local sources warn of Iran's attempts to "extend its influence", specifically in the central city and key religious centre of Najaf.
However, this effort, according to the sources, was not unchecked. Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, the most important Shi'a figure in Iraq, "[did] not allow Iranian students to enroll in the howzeh (religious seminary) in order to prevent [the Iranian Government's] infiltration".
As with most reports from the complex political scene of Iraq, the claims of the sources should be treated with caution. There are not only provocative allegations against the Iranians, including claims of assassination of Iraqis, but also against the local police and political figures.
Still, the cable is a useful reminder that a Shi'a-led Iraq does not equate to an Iraq led by Tehran.
THE ORIGINAL CABLE
Monday, 14 December 2009, 09:57
C O N F I D E N T I A L BAGHDAD 003195
DEPARTMENT FOR NEA/IR, NEA/I, AND NEA/FO LIMBERT, CORBIN.
EO 12958 DECL: 12/06/2019
TAGS PGOV, PECON, PREL, IR, IZ
SUBJECT: IRAN/IRAQ: THE VIEW FROM NAJAF
1. (C) SUMMARY: Local interlocutors from Najaf's social, economic, political and military circles discussed with Post's Senior Iran Watcher (IW) and PRToffs the scope of Iranian influence in the province, the role of the Shia clerical establishment (Marja'iyyah), notably Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, and the challenges confronting the province's farmers who are unable to compete with Iranian-subsidized produce. Interlocutors generally cautioned against a premature U.S. departure and agreed that Iran remains an influential force in Najaf, leveraging its ties with Iraqi political groups to extend its influence. Iran remains wary of Sistani's social and political clout among Shias, notably in Iran, given the Grand Ayatollah's rejection of the Iranian regime's adherence to clerical rule (vilayat-e-faqih). END SUMMARY
2. (C) During a recent visit to Najaf XXXXXXXXXXXX shared their views on the state of political and economic development in the province and Iran's role.
Provincial Council Chairman
3. (C) XXXXXXXXXXXX asserted that Iraqis throughout the country were growing increasingly frustrated with foreign interference, notably from Iraq's neighbors. He singled out Saudi Arabia and Iran as the biggest culprits, but noted that a "mental revolution" was underway among Iraqi youth against foreign agendas seeking to undermine the country's stability, pointing to such trends in Anbar against the Saudis, Najaf against the Iranians, and Mosul against the Turks.
4. (C) XXXXXXXXXXXX echoed other interlocutors' concerns about a premature U.S. departure from Iraq and risks of a political and security vacuum. He noted that Iran had formed the Iraqi National Alliance (INA) political coalition comprised of the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq (ISCI) and the Sadrists, among others, in an effort to bolster ISCI's image as the pan-Shia party of choice in the elections.
5. (C)XXXXXXXXXXXX expressed concerns about rumors circulating in Najaf that the USG was sponsoring a Baathist conference in the U.S. IW dismissed the news as baseless rumors intended to undermine the USG-GOI relationship. (NOTE: A recent press report in an ISCI-owned media also mentioned a proposed Baathist conference scheduled to be held in Washington in February. END NOTE).
Keeping the U.S. Bogged Down
6. (C) XXXXXXXXXXXX described Iran as a threat to Iraqi stability, commenting that the Iranian government's (IRIG) goal is to keep the U.S. bogged down in Iraq in order to discourage U.S. military reprisals against the IRIG for its nuclear program. He commented that Iran fears Iraq's potential influence in the region, and will continue to support local proxies to exert its influence and undermine Iraq. "Iran does not offer its support for free," XXXXXXXXXXXX noted, there will be a price to pay for each proxy in exchange for Iranian support.
7. (C) XXXXXXXXXXXX is supportive of Maliki's decision to forego (at least for now) a political alliance with the INA that is dominated by the pro-Iranian Sadrist Trend and ISCI. Joining the INA will only undermine the integrity of Iraqi security institutions as ISCI/Badr and the Sadrists will try to fill key security positions with their own supporters, many of whom are unprofessional and sectarian, XXXXXXXXXXXX cautioned. The Badr Organization, heavily influenced by Iran, continued to maintain a very effective intelligence arm, according to XXXXXXXXXXXX . Many former Iraqi fighter pilots who flew sorties against Iran during the Iran-Iraq war were now on Iran's hit list (NOTE: According to XXXXXXXXXXXX , Iran had already assassinated 180 Iraqi pilots. END NOTE).
8. (C) XXXXXXXXXXXX also noted that Jaysh al-Mahdi (JAM) elements often resort to bribes (USD 10-20K) to secure the release of supporters in GOI detention and that the Najaf anti-terrorism unit regularly receives cash offers to release detainees. He asserted that XXXXXXXXXXXX also alleged that the Iraqi police were responsible for placing an IED close to the PRT base in November. "He (police chief) is a bad guy. After all, he is still part of the militia (Badr)," XXXXXXXXXXXX asserted.
Sistani: "What Do the Americans Want?" ---- [???] to pulse the cleric on his views about matters of political consequence. XXXXXXXXXXXX explained that Sistani's son, Muhammad Ridha, serves as the main conduit of information between his father whenever a religious/political message needs to be conveyed to Shia imams in the country.
12. (C) Sistani does not allow Iranian students to enroll in the howzeh (religious seminary) in order to prevent IRIG infiltration, XXXXXXXXXXXX asserted. XXXXXXXXXXXX himself is suspicious of Iranian intentions and asserted that the imams were "in the pocket of the Iranians", despite their proclaimed loyalties to Sistani.
13. (C) Regarding the Sadrists, XXXXXXXXXXXX recalled XXXXXXXXXXXX the late Muhammad Sadiq al-Sadr (Moqtada Al-Sadr's father), commenting that, unlike his radical son, the late cleric was admired and respected by many Iraqis. He Qthe late cleric was admired and respected by many Iraqis. He criticized Moqtada for failing to capitalize and build on his father's legacy. XXXXXXXXXXXX also praised the efforts of Sadr's father and sought to distinguish between "good" and "bad" Sadrists; the former being adherents of Sadr's father. [Name removed] believes the Sadrists are politically weak and continue to splinter as former JAM elements form their own groups. (NOTE: XXXXXXXXXXXX believes XXXXXXXXXXXX is a closet Sadrist despite his public alliance with Maliki's coalition. XXXXXXXXXXXX commented that the Iranians had told the wayward Moqtada to stay-put in Iran for the time being. END NOTE).
Farmers: Iran and Syria Waging Economic Warfare
14. (C) XXXXXXXXXXXX commented that most farmers support PM Maliki for his increasingly non-sectarian political message and success in improving security. However, he complained that Iran and Syria were waging economic warfare on Iraqi farmers by flooding provincial markets with low cost/quality produce that are heavily subsidized by their respective governments.
15. (C) Iraq's neighbors were pursuing such measures in order to prevent economic development, thereby forestalling the continued success of Iraq's new democracy, XXXXXXXXXXXX alleged. These problems were further aggravated by water shortages due to the ongoing drought, the high cost of fuels, outdated farming techniques, and power shortages, he noted. XXXXXXXXXXXX confirmed that the Najaf Provincial Council had recently voted to ban the import of foreign tomatoes into Najaf in an effort to bolster local producers. (NOTE: 60 percent of Najaf's labor force works in agriculture. The sector is the province's most important revenue generating industry, followed by religious tourism. END NOTE).
16. (C) XXXXXXXXXXXX railed against Iran's pervasive commercial influence in Najaf, noting that many Iranian-owned companies secure favorable contracts in the province by capitalizing on ties with local politicians. [ also criticized Iraqi politicians "for being ignorant and overly-reliant on clerics" for their political welfare.
17. (C) Najaf, as the epicenter of Shia Islam, carries significant importance for Iran and its overall campaign to expand its sphere of influence in Iraq and the region. The city is home to many Iranian pilgrims and traders eager to profit spiritually and financially from the city's religious and commercial offerings. There is general awareness and acknowledgment among many Iraqis that Iran's influence, albeit a historic reality, does not always translate into mutual benefit for Najafis. Many also acknowledge that Iran will continue to capitalize on its ties to the city in order to foster greater socio-economic dependencies. The extent of its ability to influence the ways of the Marja'iyyah are more limited, particularly during Sistani's tenure, given the clerical establishment's unrivaled theocratic and geographic prominence when compared to its "sister city" Qom.