Iran 'Influenced' Iraq Over US Troops Exit

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Marco Werman: I am Marco Werman. This is The World. The war in Iraq is coming to an end, or at least the US military intervention there is wrapping up. American troops are due out of Iraq by the end of next month. Washington had lobbied hard, and publicly, for a new agreement that would have allowed it to keep military bases in the country. But the government in Baghdad would not agree to the conditions set by the Pentagon. And it seems neighboring Iran was a factor in those failed negotiations. The BBC's Gabriel Gatehouse is in Baghdad. Welcome to the program Gabriel.

Gabriel Gatehouse: Good to be with you.

Werman: So, you spoke with Saad Youssef al-Mutalabi who is a close personal adviser to the Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. Let's hear a part of your conversation first of all.

Gatehouse: You must admit that Iran's influence having been practically zero before in this country under Saddam Hussein is now really quite strong and quite widespread.

Saad Youssef al-Mutalabi: Oh, definitely. Yeah, Iranians are very, very close to the political scene here in Iraq now and they have influence. We see Iran as a big important neighbor. We do not need a war with them again, but we know that they were very much worried with the presence of the American troops in Iraq.

Gatehouse: We know that the Americans practically begged the Iraqi government to let them keep a certain number of troops, and yet the answer was no. Was that Iran?

al-Mutalabi: [Laughs] No. It's not Iran, but it is taking Iran in consideration. We understand that there's a certain sensitivity. And we do not want an excuse for the Iranians to intervene in Iraq on the pretext that you have American troops.

Gatehouse: For the Americans, it's not a great result, is it?

al-Mutalabi: No, it isn't. [Laughs] No, it is definitely not. The Americans made a number of mistakes and they are paying the price for it.

Werman: The BBC's Gabriel Gatehouse in Bagdad speaking with an adviser to the Iraqi Prime Minister. Gabriel Gatehouse is joining us now from Bagdad. From your whole conversation with Mr. Mutalabi, what sense did you get of Iranian influence in Iraq today relative to the U.S. influence?

Gatehouse: Well, I mean, if Mr. Mutalabi's account is credible, then the situation would appear to be as follows: The United States wanted to stay - Iran wanted them out, and Iran prevailed. Now, I think that is not a good scenario for the Pentagon, for Washington, because that basically means that in the sort of geo-political battles that are going on here in the region, they've lost out to Tehran.

Werman: Now you also spoke with U.S. Embassy spokesman Michael McClellan. How did he respond to those suggestions that the Iraqi government is more influenced by Iran than the U.S.?

Gatehouse: Well, Washington's very, very sensitive State Department, very sensitive to any sense that U.S. aims may have failed strategically in the region, he flatly denied that it was an Iranian decision. He said it was a sovereign Iraqi decision and he was trying to spin that into a positive thing. He was saying, "Look, what we are leaving behind here is a sovereign country that is able to make its own decision. It's one that can't be pushed around by any country, not even the United States." Now that is certainly an argument but I think many people, certainly here - Iraqis, would see that as Washington putting a positive spin on something that isn't really terribly positive for them.

Werman: Right. Well let's take a listen to that optimistic view on things from Embassy spokesman McClellan. Here's another part of that conversation you had with him.

Gatehouse: I have not met a single Iraqi who would agree with your assessment that the past 8 1/2 years has been a huge success. Do you get out?

Michael McClellan: Yes, I get out quite a bit. And I would have to question your guest list if you are not talking to other people who don't share that same opinion. There are problems in the country, nobody argues that.

Gatehouse: And you are becoming the scapegoat, rightly or wrongly, for every single problem. Isn't that the case?

McClellan: Yes, and I would say a lot of that is wrongly. We have become the scapegoat for it because...

Gatehouse: But the perception is there.

McClellan: Yeah, that's why we need to correct those perceptions.

Gatehouse: What are you doing to correct that?

McClellan: We have done a tremendous amount of good in this country and, frankly, it has touched the lives of almost every single person in this country. You are kind of looking at this as today is the end result of the project, if you will. And, are we satisfied with it? Well, no. We don't see this as the end result. We are moving into a new phase of U.S./Iraqi relations. We are gonna see continued progress on this as more investment comes into the country, as democratic institutions are strengthened. So, I see this as a successful project.

Werman: A very lively interview there between Michael McClellan, a spokesman for the U.S. Embassy in Bagdad and the BBC's Gabriel Gatehouse. Gabriel, McClellan is talking about the start of a new chapter in the relationship with Iraq and hope for future progress. What do Iraqis make of that?

Gatehouse: Well, I think Iraq... I was just speaking to a very, very thoughtful man just literally a few hours ago, here in Bagdad. He's the director of the national archive and I met him in a room full of books that once belonged to Saddam Hussein. And I put to him that this is incredible negativity out the American presence here pretty much across the board in Iraq. And he said one very interesting thing. He says, "You've got to distinguish between the invasion and the toppling of Saddam Hussein which the overwhelming majority of people here think was a good thing, and the subsequent what is seen here as an occupation, which is widely regarded as a disaster." And then I asked him, I said, "Well, given the violence that followed the years of really terrible heartache and tragedy for so many people here, was it in the end worth it, do you think?" And he said, "Yes, without a shadow of a doubt." I said, "Why?" He said, "Five minutes of freedom is better than a lifetime of oppression."

Werman: You know, given everything that's happened in Iraq in the last 8, 10 years, that comment is really the best that the United States could hope for, in a way.

Gatehouse: I think it really is. And perhaps, that spokesman for the Embassy is right. Perhaps, once the soldiers pull out which will take away that scapegoat, because at the moment Iraqis are quite misguidedly blaming Americans for everything, from all the explosions that still go on here on a weekly basis, from the sectarianism to the corruption that is rife in the government. They blame the Americans for all of that. Now once the American military leaves, the Iraqis will see whether or not America really is responsible and perhaps they will change their mind. So, perhaps there will be an opportunity for some kind of [???], a new era of relations between America and Iraq.

Werman: The BBC's Gabriel Gatehouse in Bagdad; thanks so much.

Gatehouse: My pleasure.