When a group of Iraqi envoys headed to Iran recently, they were fully prepared for some tense moments. But they also hoped to come away with something to show for it: pledges of cooperation on weakening Shiite militias in Iraq.
Instead, they got a scolding from some of Iran's most powerful voices — accusing the Iraqi leadership of bowing to Washington and forgetting about Tehran's support for Shiites persecuted by Saddam Hussein.
The swipes during the April 30-May 2 meetings — described to The Associated Press by members of the Iraqi delegation and other senior officials — signified more than a passing spat between the main Shiite centers of gravity in the region.
Relations between Iraq's Shiite-led government and the rulers in neighboring Iran have come under unprecedented strains as Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki moves against rivals and negotiates long-term pacts with Washington.
There's almost no chance it could lead to a full-blown rupture. Iran's influence runs too deep in Iraq, from the main political bloc in al-Maliki's government to elements within the powerful Mahdi Army militia.
But the friction points to increasingly mismatched priorities: Iran is desperate to undercut the U.S. role in Iraq while Iraq's leaders are looking for American help to bolster their hold on power.
It also comes as Iran's alliances and ambitions stir new jitters around the Persian Gulf and beyond, where Sunni leaders have held the upper hand for decades.
Saudis, Hezbollah part of equation
Saudi Arabia's foreign minister, Saud al-Faisal, warned Tuesday that Iran risked souring its relations with Arab and Muslim countries because of Tehran's backing for the Shiite militant group Hezbollah, which he accused of seeking a "coup" against the Lebanese government.
Iran's muscle flexing is expected to be on the agenda during President Bush's trip to the Middle East, which began Wednesday in Israel. Bush's schedule did not include a stop in Iraq, but such trips are not announced in advance.
Iran, for its part, is not sitting back quietly.
On Monday, the hard-line Iranian newspaper Jomhuri-e-Eslami accused al-Maliki of lacking backbone in talks with Washington, which include the long-range status of U.S. military operations in Iraq. The daily, which is considered close to Iran's ruling clerics, claimed Washington wants a "full-fledged colony" in Iraq.
It was a rare public jab at al-Maliki, a Shiite. But it was mild compared with the closed-door recriminations during the high-level Iraqi visit, according to accounts by Shiite politicians close to Iraq's prime minister.
The five-member delegation sought to pressure and cajole the Iranians into cutting suspected support for Shiite militias that have battled U.S. and Iraqi forces. But the Iraqis mostly received a scolding, the politicians said.
"The Iranians were very tough and even angry with us," said one of the delegates in the Tehran talks. "They accused us of being ungrateful to what Iran has done for the Shiites during Saddam's rule and of siding with the Americans against Iran."
The Iraqi politicians, five in all, spoke to the AP in separate interviews on condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the subject. Two of them took part in the talks with the Iranians. The rest were briefed on the meetings.
Complaints of ingratitude
At one point, a key leader within Iran's Revolutionary Guards accused the Iraqi delegation and their leaders of being tools of Washington and showing ingratitude for years of Iranian support to Iraqi's majority Shiites, who suffered attacks and persecution under Saddam, the politicians said.
Brig. Gen. Ghassem Soleimani, commander of the elite Quds Force unit of the Guards, accused the Iraqis of offering U.S. forces "a permanent home on our doorsteps," the politicians told the AP.
The Iranians also rejected what the Iraqis called "evidence" of Iranian ties to Shiite militiamen, including seized weapons that bore Iranian markings, the politicians said.
Responding to accusations that Shiite militiamen were training in camps outside Tehran, the Iranians claimed the facilities were being used to house members of the Mahdi Army who fled Iraq to escape arrest.
The leader of the Mahdi Army, militant Iraqi cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, has lived in Iran for the past year — partly because he fears for his life in Iraq and because he is studying for the high clerical rank of ayatollah.
The suspected degree of Iranian links with Shiite militiamen depends on who is making the accusation.
The U.S. military is careful to distinguish in its public pronouncements between the mainstream Mahdi Army and breakaway "special groups" with alleged closer ties with Iran. Iraqi authorities are less specific and suggest that al-Sadr's entire movement is drifting more into Iran's orbit.
This week, al-Sadr's Mahdi Army agreed to an accord to end clashes in Baghdad's Sadr City district. But fighting has not fully subsided, suggesting that some militiamen now operate out of al-Sadr's control.
Iran brokers end to Basra fighting
In late March, however, Iran helped broker an end to battles between Iraqi-led forces and Mahdi Army fighters in the southern city of Basra.
The mixed signals from Iran underscore the complexity of Tehran's role since the fall of Iran's archenemy Saddam more than five years ago.
Last year, a senior Iranian envoy, Ali Larijani, told al-Maliki that Iran considers the U.S. troop presence in Iraq a "serious danger" to Iran's national security. Then at the recent meetings, Iranian authorities said they opposed al-Maliki's goal to crush the Mahdi Army, arguing it would rob Tehran of a key ally, the Iraqi politicians told the AP.
But Iran also has taken part in groundbreaking one-on-one talks with U.S. diplomats in Baghdad on ways to calm Iraq's violence.
Vali Nasr, an Iranian-American expert who closely monitors Shiite affairs, said Tehran saw the timing of the Mahdi Army crackdown as particularly harmful — coming as more Sunni armed groups forge alliances with the United States against al-Qaida in Iraq.
"The (Iranian) argument is that the destruction of the Sadrists will weaken Shiites at a time when Sunni tribes are being armed and getting stronger," said Nasr, a professor at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University.