TEHRAN, Iran – Iranian President Mohammad Khatami (search) said Monday that his government is not supporting the uprising by Iraqi cleric Muqtada al-Sadr (search), and blamed U.S. troops for the fighting in the Shiite holy city of Najaf, the official Islamic Republic News Agency reported.
"We have never taken sides in favor or against any group or faction in Iraq," Khatami was quoted as telling reporters when asked if Iran backs al-Sadr, whose militiamen are battling with U.S. and Iraqi government forces in Najaf and elsewhere.
Iran, a Shiite Muslim (search) country with close ties to Iraq's majority Shiite population, is believed to want to counter U.S. influence in Iraq and to be trying to ensure future Iraqi governments are friendly with Iran. The Iranian government insists it is not interfering in Iraq.
Khatami said these are testing times for Iraq's interim government.
"If it can't resolve the problems, then definitely the Iraqi public opinion won't have a positive view of it," he said.
The fighting in Najaf, a holy city to Shiite Muslims as the home to the revered Imam Ali Shrine, has sparked concern in predominantly Shiite Iran.
Khatami said al-Sadr's militants "had not provoked the U.S. forces in Iraq this time to justify the attacks" in Najaf. "The occupying forces play the main role in these attacks," IRNA quoted Khatami as saying.
"Yesterday it was Fallujah, today it is Najaf and tomorrow it might be the whole of Iraq that will come under attack," Khatami added.
On Friday, Khatami called for an urgent meeting of Muslim nations to discuss the "catastrophe" in Iraq, particularly the standoff in Najaf.
Prime Minister Naji al-Otari of Syria, one of Iraq's neighbors, said late Sunday that the countries around Iraq, and the broader international community, should try to bring calm to Iraq before the chaos there hurts the whole region.
His comments came during a meeting in Damascus with his Jordanian counterpart, Faisal al-Fayez, the official Syrian Arab News Agency said. The Syrian government has supported a previous Iranian call for Iraq's neighbors to meet to discuss the Iraqi situation.
Last month, Iraqi Defense Minister Hazem Shaalan labeled Iran as Iraq's "first enemy," accusing the Tehran regime of helping Iraqi insurgents, but Iraqi Prime Minister Ayad Allawi later distanced his government from the remark.
The United States fears Iran wants to establish a fundamentalist Shiite regime in its own image in Iraq and has accused Iran of fomenting violence and instability in Iraq.
Iran and the United States have not had diplomatic relations since the 1979 Islamic Revolution toppled the U.S.-backed shah of Iran. Before the Iraq war, President Bush named Iran as part of an "axis of evil" along with North Korea and Saddam Hussein's Iraqi regime.