Iraqi officials say thousands of Iranians have streamed illegally across the border into Iraq, swelling the populations of cities that are home to some of Islam's holiest shrines. One Iraqi official said there is deep concern that Iran is directly funding and actively participating in a plan to gain religious and political influence in Iraq. VOA's Greg LaMotte traveled to one of Iraq's holiest shrines and filed this report.
Ever since the fall of Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein, Kadhimiya, just outside Baghdad, has been bustling with business. That is because tens of thousands of mostly Shi'ite Muslim pilgrims have been flocking to the city where the 600-year-old Islamic holy shrine of al-Kadhim is located.
But while business may be booming, the Iraqi interim government is becoming increasingly concerned about the thousands of pilgrims streaming into the country illegally from Iran.
Abdel al-Hassoon is a hotel owner in Kadhimiya. He says that, up until about four months ago, all of the hotels in town were filled with Iranians who came to town by the busload.
Mr. al-Hassoon says Iranians were entering the town on a daily basis and, at one point, he says, city officials estimated there were as many as 7000 Iranians in Kadhimiya. He says the hotels were so full, many Iranians were forced to go to the homes of local residents to rent rooms.
But Mr. al-Hassoon says Iraqi police put an end to the influx of illegal Iranian immigrants four-months ago. He says Iraqi police forced hotel owners to sign papers stating they would not rent rooms to Iranians who were not in possession of legal passports bearing an official Iraqi stamp.
Despite the claims of a half-dozen hotel owners that they are no longer renting rooms to Iranians, there is plenty of evidence they are still in town. The lobbies and public areas of the hotels echo with the sounds of the Persian language. In one instance, a group of Persian-speaking men hurried out of the hotel once word spread that a reporter was asking about them.
The Iraqi government is watching the Iranian presence with concern.
A senior official with Iraq's Interior Ministry says the Iranian population has grown rapidly in southern Iraq, especially in the holy cities of Karbala and Najaf, and that Iraqi intelligence has detected the presence of Iranian security forces there. The senior official said that thousands of militiamen, trained and funded by Iran, are operating throughout southern Iraq.
This week, Iraq's defense minister, Hazem Sha'alan, blamed Tehran for the majority of terrorist attacks that have been carried out in Iraq. But Wednesday, Prime Minister Iyad Allawi publicly apologized for the comment, saying the defense minister was not authorized to make such a statement.
Mr. Allawi will soon travel to Tehran for direct meetings with Iranian officials, among other things, to urge greater cooperation in helping to protect Iraq's border with Iran.
The senior political adviser for Iraq's Interior Ministry is Sabah Kadhim.
"This is important," he stressed. "These are the borders where a substantial number of people have infiltrated Iraq. And, people, not only do they come from Iran, but they come from as far as Afghanistan."
Mr. Kadhim says, while Tehran has officially shown "encouraging support" for Iraq's interim government, he says there are elements within Iran that do not want to see Iraq succeed.
A senior Iraqi government official expressed concern that Iranian security forces are also trying to politically galvanize the Iranian population in Iraq.
The official said it has "become apparent that elements in Iran are attempting to gain influence and control over Iraq's holiest sites and, therefore, over the whole of Iraq."
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