WASHINGTON – The White House is warning Iran to stop sending agents into Iraq to rally support among the Shiite population, interfering with the creation of a new democracy in Iraq.
Press Secretary Ari Fleischer said Wednesday that U.S. officials have sent messages to Iranian officials that the administration would "oppose any outside influence" in the setup of a post-Saddam Hussein government. He said sending agents to inflame the Iraqi Shiites would fall into that category of interference.
Shiite Muslims are a majority in both Iran and Iraq, but were repressed under Saddam's regime. Ayatollah Mohammed Baqir al-Hakim, leader of the Supreme Council of the Islamic Revolution of Iraq, said this week that the pilgrimage and ceremonies held by hundreds of thousands of Shiites in the city of Karbala shows the interest Iraqis have in an Islamic government.
"The presence of the American troops in Iraq is not acceptable or justified by the Iraqis," the ayatollah said.
Lt. Gen. David M. McKiernan, a U.S. military commander in Baghdad helping to lay the foundations for a new government, said many competing interests are vying for a say in the new ruling body, and Shiites have as much voice as any other group.
"Right now, the Shiite and any Iranian-influenced Shiite actions are not an overt threat to coalition forces. But we're watching all these competing interests. And if truth be known, this is probably a little bit of democracy in process right now here in Iraq," he said Wednesday.
So far, said a U.S. intelligence official, Iran appears to be merely gathering information and positioning itself for influence in whatever new Iraq emerges, a step taken by many of Iraq's neighbors who have been closed off from the country for more than two decades.
The official said no evidence suggests that the Iranian government is encouraging anti-U.S. demonstrations, but officials say they are watching closely for such activity.
Fleischer added that "there is no love lost between the Iraqi people and the Iranian people" and that the Iraqi people are loathe to have their interests decided by their neighbors.
Fleischer said President Bush is happy that Iraqi Shiites are able to celebrate the holidays in a way previously forbidden to them by Saddam. Aides added that Bush is not troubled by the religious exuberance, but rather considers it a celebration of Iraq's newfound freedom.
He said Bush doesn't have a problem with Iraq being an Islamic state as long as it is a democratic and tolerant one. Officials point to the model of Turkey, a democratic nation run by an elected Islamic party that allows religious freedom. The United States opposes an Islamic dictatorship in Iraq, similar to that seen in Tehran, Fleischer said.
Fox News' Wendell Goler and Jim Angle contributed to this report.