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Many Sunni Muslims diverting anger from Israel to Iran

BAGHDAD, Iraq—Since results from Iraq's national assembly election trickled out last week showing that Shiite Muslims _many backed by neighboring Iran—would dominate the new parliament, Sunni Muslims have begun to ask: Is Israel really Iraq's enemy, or is it neighboring Iran?

Sunnis are often not comfortable talking openly about Israel, especially in a region where most Arabs won't refer to it by name and blame Israel for the conflict with the Palestinians. But privately many said Israel has not done anything lately to harm them; Iran has.

Apparently the memory of Iraq's eight-year war with Iran in the 1980s and the more recent attempts by Iran to influence Iraq's majority Shiite population have overwhelmed recollections of Israel's 1981 bombing of a French-built nuclear reactor near Baghdad.

Many Sunnis here say that Iran sent money and fake ballots across the border to support the Shiite-dominated United Iraqi Alliance slate. Now that the slate likely has won over a third of the parliament seats, many worry that Iranian influence is here to stay.

"I think that Iran is more dangerous to Iraq than Israel because of the assassinations that the Iranians have been doing. I think Israel would have been more merciful," said Added Hamid Hashim, 30, referring to recent killings of prominent Sunnis, even though there is no proof that Iranians were involved. "I hated Israel before the war, but now I hate Iran even more."

Added Mustafa Mohammed Kamal, 58, a retired schoolteacher: The Iranian interference in the election "was very clear and that makes Iran the number one enemy of Iraq. The Iranians have many supporters in Iraq. Israel is an enemy, but they are not as egregious."

During Saddam Hussein's time, the Sunni Muslim dictator was considered one of the most outspoken and active supporters of the Palestinians. Indeed, he paid some families of Palestinian suicide bombers up to $25,000 as a reward. Of course, Iran was no friend of Saddam, who launched an attack on Iran in September 1980 that touched off a war in which up to a million soldiers and civilians may have died.

Mithal al Alusi just ran a campaign for a seat on the new parliament while calling for stronger ties between Israel and Iraq, and appears to have won a seat.

In May 2004, al Alusi publicly admitted to visiting Israel the year before and faced repeated assassination attempts apparently provoked by the visit. His only two sons were assassinated in January because of his support of Iraqi-Israeli cooperation, he said.

But he said that some Iraqis are warming to a stronger relationship with Israel, in part because they are frightened of Iran's influence.

"They are afraid of Iran's extremist political system. If Iran were a democracy, they wouldn't be afraid," Alusi said. "We don't have border problems with Israel. We don't have historical problems with Israel," just Iran.

U.S. officials have said that Iranian political groups have funneled money into Iraq trying to influence the Dec. 15 elections. Gen. George Casey, commander of U.S. forces in Iraq, said earlier this month that Iran was "putting millions of dollars into the south to influence the elections."

One of Iraq's most fanatical opponents to Iran, Mujahedeen of Iran, claims that Iran pumped $84 million into Iraq's December elections, although no one has verified that number.

"We have always argued that Iran is the problem. The Iranian status in Iraq is a mass occupation," said Hossein Madani, a political representative of the group. "If you don't want to deliver Iraq to Iran on a silver platter, you need to do something soon."

For many Shiites here, the alliance with Iran is natural. Besides sharing a border, Iran is the largest and most powerful Shiite-dominated government in the world.

In the Shiite-dominated south, political parties often serve Iranian-made pastries at their events, women wear Iranian-made jewelry and markets offer an array of Iranian products, such as potato chips and photo albums. Residents there are unapologetic about their allegiance, but they said they are loyal to Iraq first.

"I don't think there is an Iranian interference in Iraq or in the elections," said Balasim Rizoki Jassim, 28, a Shiite supermarket owner. "I think they can be our friends."

Alusi believes Sunni politicians sometimes stoke fears of Iranian influence to galvanize their base, which is struggling to define its place in the new government.

A year ago, they would have used Israel to scare up votes, he said.

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(Knight Ridder special correspondents Mohammed al Awsy and Wail al Hafith, and Knight Ridder correspondent Leila Fadel contributed to this report.)

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(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

Iraq

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