Between a Rock and a Hard Place

Iraq fears being caught in middle of U.S.-Iran tensions
By Liz Sly
Tribune foreign correspondent
Published February 1, 2007, 9:02 PM CST

BAGHDAD — Alarmed by rising tensions between the United States and Iran, Iraqi government officials fear their country is in danger of being dragged into the middle of a new conflict between its two main allies.

In the past week, the Bush administration has ratcheted up pressure on Iran, saying it has evidence that Tehran is arming Iraqi insurgents and pledging to hunt down Iranian agents operating in Iraq. That has fueled concerns in Baghdad that Iraq will become the battleground in a showdown between Iran and the U.S., Iraqi officials say.

Iraq’s Shiite-led government has warm relations with neighboring Iran, and it does not want that relationship compromised by an increasingly strident posture by Washington toward Tehran, Iraqi officials say.

“We want to maintain good relations with our neighbors, especially Iran,” Iraqi government spokesman Ali al- Dabbagh told a news conference Thursday in Baghdad’s heavily fortified Green Zone. “We have long borders with them, we have local interests with [them] and we would like to have this relationship not in the shadow of the others.”

Iraq also wants to maintain good relations with the U.S., he added, stressing that Iraq does not condone attacks against U.S. forces in Iraq. “We want good relations with everyone, whether Iran or the U.S.,” he said. “The problems between the U.S. and Iran must not get solved in Iraq.”

Tensions between the U.S. and Iran have escalated sharply in recent weeks, with the dispatch of additional U.S. warships to the Persian Gulf and the deployment of upgraded Patriot missiles to Gulf Arab countries, fueling speculation across the region that the U.S. is gearing up for a war with Iran.

Bush administration officials insist they do not intend to go to war with Iran. They have defended the targetting of Iranians in Iraq and other moves in the region as necessary to counter Tehran’s backing of Iraqi insurgents, which coincides with U.S. efforts to stop Iran from developing a nuclear weapon.

“We’ve been very clear we don’t intend to strike into Iran, in terms of what we’re doing in Iraq,” Undersecretary of State Nicholas Burns told National Public Radio Thursday.

But Iraq’s concern is that the U.S. is taking advantage of its presence in Iraqi territory to rein in Iran’s rising influence in the region, Iraqi officials say. Earlier this week, the Los Angeles Times reported that the U.S. Air Force is preparing to undertake more aggressive patrols along the Iraq-Iran border to disrupt insurgent supply lines.

“Any escalation between Iran and the U.S. will be negative for us,” said Mahmoud Othman, a Kurdish legislator. “If you exclude the Sunnis, the majority of Iraqis think of Iran as a friend.”

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