The first flight from Iran in three decades landed in Iraq's holy city of
Najaf today, resurrecting a direct link between the world's two major Shia
Passengers from Tehran arrived at a brand-new airport, a symbol of Iraq's
rebirth and a gateway for 3 million Iranian Shia pilgrims planning to visit
Najaf this year, hoping to overcome tensions going back to the Iran-Iraq
But old enmity dies hard. Iran is viewed with increasing suspicion by Iraqis
and may now be as unpopular as America after years of sponsoring insurgent
Politicians, clerics and ordinary residents in Najaf — traditionally a
pro-Tehran city — expressed to The Times an almost visceral
fear of Iranian influence. As violence ebbs, such fears are replacing
divisions over American influence as a core political issue and signal the
rise of Arab nationalism in Iraq.
Sheikh Hayder Al-Amiry, a prominent Shia cleric, said: "Iran has
supported violent groups here and with every bomb that has gone off the
hatred for Iran increased." The cleric foresaw a clash between an
Iranian desire to export its system of Shia religious rule and the Iraqi
reality of volatile coalition government. "Their system will not work
here. Any attempt by Iran to create a political union would be seen with
much worry," he said.
The worry was echoed by Liqaa Al-Yasin, a member of parliament for Najaf, who
said: "It is unacceptable that neighbouring countries influence our
politics. There have to be clear limits." Dr Al-Yasin, a first cousin
of firebrand Shia cleric Moqtadr Al-Sadr, regularly organises anti-Iranian
demonstrations near her home. In Iraq's Sunni-dominated cities that would be
no surprise, but Najaf is the heart of the Iraqi Shia community.
In recent years the city regained its pre-Saddam position as a religious
capital, a cross between Jerusalem and the Vatican for all Shia Muslims.
Last year, the city attracted 1.5 million Iranian pilgrims, a figure that is
expected to double with the opening of direct air links. Aircraft will
connect Najaf to five cities in Iran twice a day, the first such link since
the Iranian Revolution in 1979.
Today's inaugural flight carried senior executives from Mahan Air, a private
Iranian airline, as well as Khan Lari, the Iranian deputy minister of
transport. He said: "A total of six Iranian airlines will operate
flights between Iran and Najaf."
Najaf's status is tied to the shrine of Imam Ali, revered by the Shia as the
rightful successor to the prophet. Every day, pilgrims swarm around his
shrine in the city centre, as nearby shopkeepers complain about cheating
Iranian customers and locals say that they are elbowed aside by Iranian
"Iran is trying to split Iraq and rule the south of our country where
there is a lot of oil," said a local accountant called Sadiq, a Shia. A
public servant named Ali Al-Silawi, another Shia, said: "Iran has an
interest in chaos here. If Iraqi democracy is successful then it could be
exported to Iran and topple the rulers, so they are trying to defend
Yet apart from insurgent groups, Iranian influence in Iraq is hard to pin
down. Some Iraqi political leaders lived in exile in Iran before the fall of
Saddam and developed close links with Tehran. But for the most part Iran
relies on low-key proxies. It operates a network of charities to generate
goodwill and contacts. The Imam Khomeini Association in Najaf pays monthly
stipends to 25,000 orphans and $1,000 wedding subsidies when they get
married. A spokesman said that the charity has no direct political role, and
few in Najaf disagree.
So why the growing hostility among Shia residents towards Iran, the world's
only major Shia-ruled power? A western diplomat in Baghdad drew a comparison
with McCathyist paranoia in 1950s America and said: "It's the
re-emergence of Arab nationalism in Iraq."
After the fall of Saddam, sectarian identities dominated as violence increased
and Iraqis sought the safety of kin groups. But with violence subsiding, at
least for now, a competing Arab identity is becoming stronger and the
Persians from Iran are seen as rivals once again.
This is especially evident in party politics. In the past few years, Najaf was
dominated by SCIRI, a powerful Shia party and an alleged ally of Tehran.
After popular pressure the party has now begun to publicly distance itself
from Iran. Abdul Hussain al-Musawi, the chairman of the Najaf Provincial
Council and a political independent close to SCIRI, said: "We reject
outside influence. Iran did a lot to support the insurgents and so we've
become a battleground for the fight between Iran and America. We don't want
Independent candidates are expected to do well in next month's provincial
elections, and hence SCIRI has scrapped its own party list and merged with a
slate of independents in Najaf. Hadi al-Salame, a leading independent member
of the city council, said that campaigning on an anti-Iranian platform has
become the norm. "In Iran they have rule by clerics while we don't have
that. We don't want their system here," he said.
Fear of Iran goes hand in hand with nascent pride in oil wealth, newfound
stability and religious status. Leaders of all parties in Najaf see the city
as the capital of southern Mesopotamia, not an Iranian satellite. With
evident satisfaction, they claim that only Mecca and Medina receive more
pilgrims every year.