By Chief foreign affairs correspondent
NBC News
updated 12/15/2004 7:46:30 PM ET 2004-12-16T00:46:30

Kicking off his country's first democratic election campaign Wednesday, Interim Prime Minister Ayad Allawi declared his own candidacy, saying the country can handle the challenge.

But as Iraqis register to vote, the United States worries that the real winners could be the ayatollahs in neighboring Iran. U.S. intelligence sources tell NBC News that 1 million Iranians have already poured across the border to register to vote in Iraq. And Iran is spending as much as $100 million to elect its favored slate of candidates in Iraq — and may have thousands of spies in Iraq.

"They're putting money into Iraq," says Danielle Pletka, an Iraq expert at the American Enterprise Institute. "They're promoting candidates. They're sponsoring terrorist groups that are pressuring people in Iraq. They're doing everything they can."

And while Iraq's defense minister warned Wednesday that both Iran and Syria are cooperating with Iraq's No. 1 terrorist — Abu Musab al-Zarqawi — the United States has no proof of that.

On Wednesday, President Bush, after a White House meeting with Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi, told Iran and Syria to stay out.

"We will continue to make it clear to both Syria and Iran — as will other nations in our coalition, including our friend, the Italians, that meddling in the internal affairs of Iraq is not in their interest," said the president.

But, it is not clear what the United States can do.

The United States says Iran is funding the leading Shiite candidate Abdul Aziz al-Hakim, who is expected to emerge as the country's most powerful figure. A new Shiite government could oppose controversial military operations, like Fallujah, or even demand a rapid U.S. withdrawal.

"I think we have to accept it might not be an outcome that we particularly desire, but if it's a free and clear election, then that's what our policy has been all about," says Geoffrey Kemp, an Iranian expert at the Nixon Center.

U.S. officials hope that Iraqi voters will resist Iran's influence and remember that less than 20 years ago, Iran was their enemy in a brutal war.

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