x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 20 July 2017

Resentment grows towards Tehran

Karbala residents fail to reap benefits from growing tourism, and are growing increasingly resentful at what they see as creeping Iranian control.

An Iranian woman sits outside her hotel in Karbala, Iraq. Millions of Iranians travel to the holy city each year, bringing money and influence.
An Iranian woman sits outside her hotel in Karbala, Iraq. Millions of Iranians travel to the holy city each year, bringing money and influence.

KARBALA, IRAQ // With a vastly improved security situation here, and an open border with Iran, the number of visitors has boomed in recent years. At least eight million foreigners are believed to have made the journey last year, and Karbala's newly opened international airport is projected to help that number eventually increase to 20 million.

While the tourism boom has bolstered the local economy, Karbala residents have not reaped many benefits, and are growing increasingly resentful at what they see as creeping Iranian control of their city. Abu Huda, a Shiite from Baghdad who regularly makes the 110km trip south to see the shrine of Imam Ali, one of the holiest places for Shia Muslims, is not happy about it. "It's disgusting, we're forced to sleep in our cars or you see families sleeping in the streets during the big festivals because they can't get space in a hotel," he said. "Every time I come I'm turned away from hotels. They'll have empty rooms but they won't let you in."

There are fewer than 200 hotels in the city, with about 4,000 guest beds, nowhere near enough to meet the growing demand. But Abu Huda, a 36-year-old father of two, believes it is not simply a matter of insufficient supply that relegates him to spending uncomfortable nights in his car. He sees it as a deliberate political act and a reflection of Iran's huge influence over post-Saddam Hussein Iraq.

"Iraqi pilgrims are treated as second-class citizens here, the Iranians get everything," he said. "Why is that Iranians get the best hotels and the Iraqis can get nothing here? I'll tell you; it's because the Iranians control everything here, there is an Iranian occupation. "I'm a stranger here, I'm like a foreigner even though this is Iraqi soil." The Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq (ISCI), one of the country's most influential political parties, is extremely powerful in the city and its close historical links to Tehran, where the group was founded, add to suspicions of many Iraqis that Karbala is no longer under their control.

"Tourism in this city is all dealt with by the Supreme Council [ISCI]," said one hotel owner who asked not to be named for fear of retribution. "They have managed to make tourism increase, it's a big money business, but it has not benefited any locals or independent businessmen. It has only benefited the Supreme Council and their people. You've got to be with them otherwise you get nothing." As part of these allegations of a Mafia-like grip over the tourism industry, the hotel owner said price caps had been imposed on hotel rooms for Iranians. Despite the huge shortage of beds, he said the Iraqi authorities had done a deal to limit the cost of a room to US$50 (Dh180) a night.

"We ought to be charging at least $90 a night but we can't," he said. "We don't really make a profit as things are, especially as all of the Iranians bring enough food with them to last their stay. They never eat in the restaurant here, never in the hotel restaurant." Claims that ISCI wields too much power and is too close to Iran are not uncommon in Iraq. The Supreme Council shrugs off the accusations as misguided and overly simplistic. Its links with Iran are productive and normal, it says, not a case of Tehran using them as a proxy.

And although it is extremely powerful in Karbala, the Supreme Council failed to win control of the city in January's provincial elections, which were won by a former Baathist, Yusif al Haboobi, who is now an independent. Ahmed Abdul Hussain, a director of Karbala's government-run tourism office, dismissed claims of discrimination and said Iraqis who failed to get rooms were probably just not well organised.

"There is no difference in our dealings with Iraqis compared to Iranians or tourists from any other country," he said in an interview. "Iranians who come here usually do so with travel agencies and they make advance bookings. In fact, to travel here across the border, they should have a confirmed hotel reservation." By contrast, Iraqis tend to just show up and hope for a room, he said. Mr Hussain also rejected suggestions there was a policy of interfering with hotel management. "There is not control over hotels and we do not impose any conditions on them, other than that they should be clean and fair," he said.

Regardless of the truth, the allegations of malign Iranian involvement reflects a major part of the modern Iraqi political landscape. Nationalist sentiments are strong and are combine with sectarianism in complex ways. Within Iraq's Shiite community, for example, are anti and pro-Iranian blocs, while Sunnis are still prone to regard Shiites as instinctive allies of Tehran. Iranian tourism to Iraq's holy sites is a potentially huge industry, and Iraq can ill afford to lose the economic boost. At the same time, it only exacerbates fears about Iran's influence.

The large number of Iranian pilgrims make it easy for Iranian intelligence services to operate in Karbala, according to Ali al Kafi, a political analyst based in the city. "Tourism is seen as contributing to Iran's project here and spreading its influence," he said in an interview. "There are the major political parties, ISCI and Dawa [of the prime minister, Nouri al Maliki] that are heavily dependent on Iran for their power, and Tehran is clearly happy with the situation in Iraq now. It feels it has reached its goals."

Mr al Kafi said there was "no doubt" Iranian secret services were operating in Karbala both inside and outside of official institutions. "Iraq has become an open book to Iran, there are thousands of Iranian pilgrims here every month that their security agents can disappear among or get information from. Iran is powerful here, without any question." "Iranians have more rights in this city than me or any other Iraqi," said Mezher al Sria, a 27 year-old hotel worker. "We are all worried about losing our jobs if any Iranian makes a complaint against us, and that is because it is Iran in control now."

nlatif@thenational.ae