Sunnis and Shi'a Divided on Iran

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Khalid Mohammed / AP

Artillery shells that were used to make a car bomb lay gathered by Iraqi police near the scene of a car bomb blast in central Baghdad, Iraq, February, 2007.

The Sunnis say, "We told you so." The Shi'ites say, "Look who's talking." Iraq's leaders are divided along sectarian lines on almost every issue, big and small, so it should come as no surprise that the two sides have totally different views on the latest U.S. accusations about Iran supplying arms and know-how to Iraqi militias.

The accusations were welcomed by Sunni politicians, who have long maintained that Tehran supports Shi'a death squads and militias. "We diagnosed this problem a long time ago," Salim al-Jabouri, a prominent Sunni member of Iraq's parliament, told TIME. "It was expected that the Americans would come to the same conclusion."

But Shi'a politicians, who make up the largest block of the parliament and have close ties to Tehran, dismissed U.S. claims as propaganda by a Bush Administration seeking to deflect blame for the American military's failure to curb the growing violence in Iraq. Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has maintained a studied silence; Ali al-Dabbagh, his official spokesman, told TIME the government has no comment on the latest accusations. But an official in the Prime Minister's office questioned the credibility of U.S. intelligence, pointing to recent reports of evidence-fudging at the Pentagon in the lead-up to the invasion of Iraq. "They need a scapegoat, so they conveniently point to their old enemy, Iran," said the official, who asked not to be named because he is not authorized to talk to the media. "But these days American intelligence is a discredited commodity. Who can believe them?"

Maliki's own Dawa Party has close ties to Iran and has in the past deflected questions about Iran's support for the Shi'a militias, instead fingering Iraq's Sunni neighbors — Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Jordan — for aiding terrorist groups. "We don't deny that Iran has an interest in Iraq, and that is a matter of concern," said Abu Firas al-Saedi, a senior Dawa leader. "But the real question is: 'Why are the Arab states allowing terrorists to enter Iraq through their borders, and why are they financing them?'" That sentiment was echoed by parliamentarian Falah Shansal, from the Shi'a bloc of radical cleric Moqtada al-Sadr. "There are groups in Saudi Arabia who finance terrorism in Iraq," he said. "Why are the Americans not talking about this?"

Some Shi'a leaders acknowledge that Iran may be meddling in Iraqi affairs, but say the solution lies in diplomacy. Washington's aggressive finger-pointing, they say, can only antagonize the Iranians further, and hurt Iraq's interests. "To end the violence, Iraq needs the help of all its neighbors, and we have to be very diplomatic about how we approach them," Shansal said.

Meanwhile, Iraq's largest Shi'a party denied U.S. claims that two Iranian agents were seized at the home of the party's leader, Abdel-Azziz al-Hakim. Ridha Jawad Taki, a spokesman for Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRII), said the two were diplomats and were grabbed as they were on their way to the home of President Jalal Talabani, Hakim's neighbor. "They were invited by the President to discuss the security situation," he said. "And they were released after two days."