- Iran - Iraq - Mahmoud Ahmadinejad - Nuri al-Maliki
Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki was in Iran on Sunday in a bid to reassure its leaders over a proposed US defence pact but the Shiite premier faces domestic opposition too to the mooted deal.
Iran's concerns that it is the likely target of the US drive for an abiding military presence in its western neighbour are shared by many in Iraq who do not want to see their country used as a launchpad for a new war in the region.
Many of Iraq's leading Shiite politicians found asylum in Iran when Saddam Hussein's Sunni-dominated regime held power in Baghdad, and Iraq's Shiite majority has close religious and cultural links with its Shiite co-religionists across the border.
Iraq's Shiite spiritual leader Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, whose opinions are closely adhered to, has indicated his opposition to any agreement with Washington that limits Iraqi sovereignty.
On Friday, his spokesman Abdel Mahdi Karbalai welcomed "the determination of (Iraq's) political parties to defend nationalist principles."
He encouraged them to "preserve the higher interests of the nation and not allow the violation of the sovereignty of the country in all fields, political, economic and cultural."
In a clear allusion to Iran, Karbalai said Iraq should not allow the interests of neighbouring countries to be put at risk.
Washington and Baghdad are in negotiations aimed at reaching a Status of Forces Agreement (SOFA) by the end of July to cover the presence of foreign troops beyond 2008 when the current UN mandate expires.
Iraqi media reports have suggested the United States is seeking to keep as many as 50 bases indefinitely, control the nation's air space, and grant both its troops and private contractors continuing immunity from prosecution under Iraqi law.
More than five years after the March 2003 invasion, there are still around 150,000 US troops deployed in Iraq, even after the drawdown of the additional personnel sent out under the surge policy announced in February last year.
American diplomats and military officials have vehemently denied that Washington wants to create "permanent" bases, but Iraqi politicians -- supporters and opponents of Maliki alike -- remain unconvinced.
"Washington is in clear contradiction with the principle of sovereignty," said Jalal al-Din al-Sagir, a member of parliament for the Supreme Islamic Council of Iraq, an influential Shiite member of Maliki's governing coalition.
Supporters of radical Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, a fierce opponent of both the US military presence and Maliki's government, called for a popular mobilisation against the defence pact.
"The agreement with the Americans is synonymous with an act of war against the Iraqi people", Sadr supporter Sattah al-Batat told worshippers in Baghdad on Friday.
Faced with the huge domestic pressure from within his own Shiite community, Maliki has toughened his position since reaching an agreement in principle with US President George W. Bush last November to sign a deal by July 31.
Iraq now says it has a "different vision" from the United States and has "has reaffirmed its willingness to... consider all options to preserve the sovereignty and interests of the country."
The change of tone has not escaped Washington which has been quick to blame Iranian meddling.
"There has been a lot of debate (inside Iraq)," US ambassador Ryan Crocker acknowledged on Thursday.
"In terms of criticism from the neighbours, Iran in particular, I think this is deliberately intended to make the negotiations difficult," he said.