HERNDON, Va., April 9 (UPI) -- During his unannounced trip to Baghdad last month, U.S. Secretary of State John Kerry met with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki to seek greater assistance in monitoring flights from Iran to Syria flying through Iraqi airspace.
Such flights are providing arms for Syrian President Bashar Assad to continue his fight against rebel forces. Iraq claims the flights are to ship humanitarian supplies; the United States knows otherwise.
Kerry hoped to get Maliki to conduct regular inspections or to deny Iran over-flight rights. It won't happen.
There is a sign present within Iraq -- not literally but physically -- indicating why this is so. Baghdad's approval to display it doesn't bode well for the country's democratic future. A hint of the significance of this sign's presence today was given long ago by Iran, even before the 2003 U.S. invasion of Iraq.
To appreciate such significance requires understanding the following:
1. Sectarian rivalry and violence within Islam began with the death of the Prophet Muhammad in the seventh century. Two main sects evolved with Sunnis outnumbering Shiites 4:1. Today, only four countries count Shiites as a majority population, with two of those states -- Iran and Iraq -- bordering each other.
2. Rule of thumb: States having the same majority sect population bond with each other -- Sunnis with Sunnis; Shiites with Shiites. But, as was seen by the 8-year war (1980-88) fought between two Shiite nations -- Iran and Iraq -- there is an exception.
The exception occurs when a majority sect state's population is ruled by a leader from among the minority sect -- as was the case with Iraq's Sunni leader, Saddam Hussein. With Iraq no longer ruled by Saddam, the rule of thumb comes back into play.
This is also why Sunni majority Syria -- ruled by minority Alawite (a Shiite offshoot) leader Assad -- has bonded with Shiite majority Iran rather than other Sunni majority states and why Iran, fearing a Sunni-run Syrian state, works to keep Assad in power.
3. Two years into the Iran-Iraq war, Saddam proposed terms for terminating hostilities with Iran. Tehran's Supreme Leader Ruhollah Khomeini, would only agree to the proposal if Saddam left Iraq. Saddam refused and the war continued for six years, ultimately being settled on the exact same terms Saddam offered earlier.
In announcing the war's end to his people in 1988, Khomeini did so begrudgingly: "Happy are those who have departed through martyrdom. Happy are those who have lost their lives in this convoy of light. Unhappy am I that I still survive and have drunk the poisoned chalice ..."
His reference to the "poisoned chalice" was symbolic -- for he had failed to accomplish his religious Mandate.
4. The Mandate: Khomeini believed in the return of the mystical 12th Imam -- a 5-year-old religious leader who disappeared in the ninth century, ascending into a state of occultation -- from which he will descend at some future date to lead Islam to world domination.
But the Prophet Muhammad foretold the 12th Imam was to rule from Iraq! Therefore, Khomeini's mandate was to secure entry into Iraq for the 12th Imam by gaining control over the country -- a goal denied to him when Saddam remained in power after the Iran-Iraq war. Iran has methodically focused ever since then on gaining influence over Iraq.
5. The late Khomeini had envisioned himself, as does his replacement, Ali Khamenei, today, as the supreme leader of ALL Muslims -- not just Iran's and not just Shiites.
The game plan was to first bring fellow majority Shiite nation Iraq into the supreme leader's "Fold" and then to branch out, offering Sunnis the chance to enter the Fold as well.
Denied a military victory in the Iran-Iraq war to dominate Iraq, Iran's mullahs seek to manipulate their influence over fellow Shiite Maliki to fulfill the mandate to gain access for the 12th Imam to Iraq.
6. Playing into Iran's game plan, Maliki is fulfilling his role by "Saddamizing" Iraq, i.e., gradually converting it, once again, into a dictatorship.
He controls entry into, and airspace over, Iraq -- with Iran having full access. The leader of Iran's deadly Quds Force -- charged with spreading the Islamic Revolution internationally --spent eight years trying to fight his way into Iraq during the war yet now is allowed to freely enter.
Ironically, the most telling sign of Iranian influence in Iraq is perhaps the most innocent in appearance. Thousands of posters and billboards appear, adorned with the smiling face of Iranian Supreme Leader Khamenei. They generate the atmosphere of a political candidate running -- unopposed -- for office in Iraq. It is a strange sight as no other country in the region markets, within its own borders, the leader of another.
The message is clear: Khamenei , as Iran's "poster boy" for its Islamic Revolution, is promoting what is to come in Iraq.
A sectarian glue is holding the Iran-Iraq alliance together today. It is ironic, however, as Iran's greatest setback in exporting its Islamic Revolution looms large with the possible fall of Syria's Assad on the horizon, its greatest victory may yet lie ahead by pulling Iraq fully into its Fold.
(James G. Zumwalt, a retired U.S. Marine Corps lieutenant colonel and infantry officer, served in the Vietnam war, the U.S. invasion of Panama and the first Persian Gulf war. He is the author of "Bare Feet, Iron Will--Stories from the Other Side of Vietnam's Battlefields," "Living the Juche Lie: North Korea's Kim Dynasty" and "Doomsday: Iran--The Clock is Ticking." He frequently writes on foreign policy and defense issues.)
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