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Iran sways Iraqis with food, aid

Tehran's support of Iraqi opposition groups like SCIRI wins hearts and minds.

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Two months after the fall of Baghdad, it is easy to find corners of Iraq that resemble the neighboring Islamic Republic of Iran. Some schools are now regularly visited by religious guidance officials; mosques and universities are enforcing a stricter form of hejab, or Muslim covering for women; and poor areas devastated by war are receiving assistance from Iranian-funded organizations.

Perhaps more important, the most outspoken voice to emerge against US plans to redesign Iraq is the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI). One of seven major Iraqi opposition groups, SCIRI is funded, aided, and until recently, headquartered in Iran's capital city, Tehran.

In this period of uncertainty in Baghdad - with political currents moving faster than efforts to form a transitional government - Iran's attempts to leave an imprint here are seen as either meddling or magnanimous.

To Washington, Iran is trying to destabilize the American-led rebuilding effort, discredit US influence, and perhaps even guide Iraq toward more theocratic foundations. Buttressing such claims, says one senior US official, is a laundry list of evidence - from media outlets that serve as virtual organs of the Iranian viewpoint to direct political involvement in various cities and "sightings of senior officers" of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard Corps in Iraq. Iran's Revolutionary Guards trained and funded the Badr Brigades, the military wing of SCIRI that has fanned out around Iraq and continues close cooperation with Iran, according to the senior US official.

But many Iraqis, religious Shiites in particular, see it differently. After more than two decades of Tehran's assistance to Iraqi opposition groups such as SCIRI and other anti-Baathist Shiite organizations, some Iraqis express gratitude. Tehran, through their eyes, is trying to help Shiites who were the subject of brutal oppression under Mr. Hussein's regime.

SCIRI leaders for their part insist they are acting in Iraq's interests and not taking directives from Tehran.

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