Shiite leader: Iran not interfering in Iraq
Abdel-Aziz al-Hakim attends a meeting last week with Iraq President Jalal Talabani, right.
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BAGHDAD, Iraq (CNN) -- Iran isn't interfering in internal Iraqi affairs as some U.S. officials have contended, the head of one of Iraq's top Shiite parties told CNN Sunday.
Abdel-Aziz al-Hakim leads the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), the Iraqi party most closely associated with Iran.
"They always accuse Iran of such things, and they told us about such things even from the first month that we've been here until now," he told CNN through a translator. "And we were always asking for evidence, but nobody came with evidence."
Al-Hakim recently asked Iran and the United States to hold talks about the accusations -- talks Iran says it is willing to hold.
Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad on Saturday said that although Iran does not trust the Bush administration, it will hold the talks with the United States about Iraq because doing so is in the best interest of Iraqis and the Muslim world, according to a report from the state-run Islamic Republic News Agency.
The Islamic republic's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, last week said Iranian officials were ready to "exchange views with the United States." It was the first time Khamenei has indicated approval of the talks, according to IRNA. (Full story)
The United States has no diplomatic relations with Iran, but authorized the U.S. ambassador to Iraq, Zalmay Khalilzad, to speak with Iranian officials and reiterate the U.S. position that Iran should not interfere inside Iraq.
Al-Hakim told CNN that Iran is important to Iraq's security.
"This issue is not only connected to Iran but with all neighboring countries," he said. "First of all, they've got strong and capable security forces. They can help in controlling the borders.
"Secondly, they've got a lot of information that would benefit Iraq regarding terrorism operations. And third, we can benefit from the experiences of all neighboring countries."
"Iraq needs this help because of the special circumstances that the country is passing through in building various establishments -- economic establishments as well as the security issue, which is the most important," he continued. "This will all lead to rebuilding the new Iraq that we all want to see."
"This is why we [SCIRI] made our move and we call for them [Iran] to publicly open the dialogue with the United States -- and we hope that such a dialogue can solve a lot of problems."
Al-Hakim blamed the violence in Iraq on "religious extremists and the Saddam loyalists who are launching sectarian genocidal campaigns against the Shiites and anyone who believes in the political process and wants to be a part of it."
While sectarian violence has rocked the country, al-Hakim denied that Shiite groups are generally opposed to Sunni Arab participation in Iraqi affairs.
Efforts to establish a unity government among Shiites, Sunnis and Kurds have been delayed by political infighting since the December 15 parliamentary elections.
"The Sunnis are our brothers," he said. "They are part of our tribes and community, and we have very strong relations with them. The terrorists are threatening every day -- and they commit horrible crimes in Iraq."
The bombing last month of a holy Shiite shrine in Samarra, he said, "was similar to what happened on September 11 in the United States.
"It was a very big crime that shocked all Iraqis from Sunni to Shia," he said.
The bombing triggered reprisal attacks against Sunnis throughout the country.
Al-Hakim warned that if the violence continues, civil war could result.
Asked about the process of forming a new government -- and the apparent stalemate over the nomination of current Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari to retain the post -- al-Hakim hedged.
"We must wait for a bit of time until the image will be clear," al-Hakim said.
The nomination of al-Jaafari, a Shiite, has been opposed by many Sunni, Kurdish and secular Shiite lawmakers unhappy with his performance as transitional prime minister.
At any rate, he said, the formation of the new government will not stop the violence.
"The Takfiris [religious extremist groups] and terrorists like Saddam loyalists ... will continue their activities whether we form the government or not, so we should deal with the issue in a special way," he said.
President Bush earlier this month accused Iran of providing material support to the largely Sunni-led insurgency in Iraq and vowed to continue to pressure Iraq's neighbor.
"We are concerned about reports and activities that we see of Iranians, particularly in the South, with militias," U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice told CNN's "Late Edition" on Sunday.
Last week, Gen. George Casey, who oversees U.S. troops in Iraq, said that almost all of the weapons and ammunition used by Iraqi insurgents comes from inside the country, but added that there is some evidence that bomb technology is being imported from Iran.
Iran -- once branded by Bush as part of an "axis of evil" -- has denied interference inside Iraq's borders.
Shiites represent an overwhelming majority of the population in Iran and a smaller majority in Iraq, which was dominated by Sunnis under the rule of former dictator Saddam Hussein.
CNN's Nic Robertson contributed to this report.
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