The Bush administration, already facing a relentless insurgency in Iraq, is preparing to confront what could be an equally daunting political challenge _ the possible emergence from the Jan. 30 election of a pro-Iranian government dominated by Shiite fundamentalists.
Despite issuing warnings to Tehran for months, some administration officials and outside experts say little can be done to limit the political influence in Iraq of Iran.
U.S. officials say Iran has given strong support to the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq and the Dawa Party, the two leading Shiite political parties in the United Iraqi Alliance, the electoral slate that most analysts expect to garner the greatest share of Iraqi votes in elections for a new national government.
The slate was formed at the initiative of Iraq's most influential Shiite religious leader, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, and public opinion polls rate the parties' respective leaders, Abdul Aziz al-Hakim and Ibrahim Jafari, as two of Iraq's most popular politicians.
Their expected dominance at the polls, coupled with the widespread belief that many of Iraq's Sunni Muslims will not participate, could spawn even greater violence by Sunni insurgents, who may gain more adherents once their longtime Shiite rivals assume power.
Until the U.S.-led invasion ousted Saddam Hussein's regime, Sunnis long controlled Iraq, although they make up about 20 percent of the population in comparison to the majority Shiites, who make up about 60 percent.
Last week, Iraq's most established Sunni political party announced its withdrawal from the Jan. 30 ballot.
Although an increase in strife after Shiite ascendancy would obviously affect the United States, the potential longer-term implications of an Iranian-leaning government installed in Baghdad are also weighing heavily on some American policymakers.
While the United States spent years and millions of dollars backing Ahmed Chalabi's Iraqi National Congress in the hope of eventually shaping Iraq's post-Hussein future, Tehran did the same for al-Hakim and the Supreme Council under the guidance of Iran's hard-line Islamic Revolutionary Guard, according to U.S. officials.
Knight-Ridder quotes an unnamed State Department official as saying that he only significant question now is how close to Iran a new Iraqi government will lean. Pointing to Iran's $20-million, the offical said the country would expect to get something in return.
But this official and others also pointed hopefully to evidence that most Iraqis, including Shiites, have a pronounced sense of nationalism and are uneasy about the prospect of a strong alliance between Tehran and Baghdad, who were bitter enemies in a war fought from 1980 to 1988.
U.S. officials also take solace in the results of an October poll showing that about 45 percent of Iraqis ranked Iran first when asked which foreign country was most likely to cause upheaval in Iraq. The United States came in second, with about 22 percent of the roughly 2,000 Iraqis questioned in face-to-face interviews making it their first choice.
Nonetheless, leading members of the Iraqi interim government, including President Ghazi al-Yawar and the chief of staff for Iraq's National Security Council, publicly fretted last month about excessive Iranian influence in Iraq's political process.
Since the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq 21 months ago, President Bush and senior members of his administration have consistently and publicly warned Tehran to stay out of Iraq's affairs. But little concrete action has followed the warnings, as Iranian money, agents and influence have continued to flow into Iraq, U.S. officials have said.
Daniel Byman, a former Middle East analyst for the U.S. government who is now a professor at Georgetown University, said the United States is in a tight spot. It must balance Tehran's efforts to spread influence in Iraq against the Iranian regime's potential to do far worse, given its support of terrorist groups, its history of exporting violence and the ease with which its agents can move into and around neighboring Iraq.
The sight of Tehran "running all over Iraq and buying up politicians" represents "some very scary stuff from the U.S. perspective," Byman said. "But the other perspective is, boy, could they make life miserable for us in Iraq if they really wanted to . . . and because the Iranians can make things so much worse, there is a danger that if we push, they will push back."
There is also a fear that religious fundamentalists might dominate the new Iraqi government, as they do in Iran.
Many experts agree that Iraq's dominant Shiite leaders, most notably Sistani, adhere to a religious school of thought that does not favor direct clerical rule, unlike their Iranian counterparts. But the fact that Iraq's dominant Shiite political figures reject direct clerical rule does not mean they will reject the notion of Shiite Islamic religious principles guiding their new state.
One branch of the Islamic Dawa Party is already circulating its own version of a draft constitution, which calls for the establishment of the "Islamic State of Iraq" in its first article. Although it clearly outlines three branches of government, the draft also appears to propose placing the greatest power in the hands of a 15-member, cleric-dominated committee, called the Legislative Assembly, according to a translated copy.