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Questions grow over Iran's influence in Iraq

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In the charged sectarian atmosphere inside Iraq and the wider Middle East, Iran's role in Iraq has become a subject of intense focus. Some Iraqis warn of an "Iran project" to boost Iranian influence over Iraq's religious city of Najaf, by attempting to install one of Iran's top Shiite clerics – Iraqi-born and trained Ayatollah Mahmoud Hashemi Shahroudi – as the next religious authority in the city. And regional players are watching Maliki's every move for signs of Iran's hand.

Among signs of Iran exerting more influence in Iraq is the air corridor between Iran and Damascus, which overflies Iraq and has aided Mr. Assad's attempt to break the back of a 19-month anti-regime rebellion.

President Barack Obama called Maliki earlier this year, asking that the overflights – apparently stopped under US pressure before the Arab League summit last April – remained stopped, the New York Times reported last week, quoting US officials.

Yet flights began again in July, the Times reported, after a rebel bomb killed four of the Syrian regime's top security officials, galvanizing new advances by the rebel Free Syrian Army. The flights have continued ever since, prompting a follow-up call to Maliki from Vice President Joseph Biden in mid-August.

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