BAGHDAD -- A senior Iranian diplomat was murdered in Baghdad yesterday as an Iranian delegation traveled to the holy city of Najaf to mediate with a renegade cleric despite US objections, fueling tensions over Iran's influence in Iraq's Shi'ite Muslim population.
Khalil Naimi, the first secretary of the Iranian embassy in Baghdad, was shot in the head and killed while driving back to the embassy, just a stone's throw from the entrance to occupation headquarters. Bullet holes lined the side of the car in what appeared to be a targeted assassination.
Iran's foreign ministry spokesman, Hamid Reza Asefi, blamed the murder on a climate of ''chaos and bloodshed" in Iraq caused by America's ''childish and destructive" policies, according to the official Islamic Republic News Agency.
''The only solution to the issue is for the occupation forces to pull out from Iraq and let the Iraqi people administer their own affairs," Asefi told IRNA.
The Islamic Republic of Iran -- the giant theocracy along Iran's eastern border -- has cast a long shadow over Shi'ite politics here, and the specter of an Iranian-style government here has helped drive the US effort to promote democracy among Iraq's Shi'ite majority and cultivate clerics who believe in electoral politics. Yesterday's events brought to the surface many of the concerns that have troubled the United States and some Iraqi officials since the fall of Saddam Hussein's government last year.
Iran wants to play an active role in its neighbor's future; an overwhelmingly Shi'ite country ruled by clerics, it hopes to create a strong ally in Iraq, the only other large majority Shi'ite country in the Muslim world.
US officials suspect Iranian agents of arming and funding Shi'ite militants inside Iraq, including the Mahdi Army, the militia loyal to cleric Moqtada al-Sadr. They have accused Iran of allowing fighters to infiltrate the Iraqi border, and of working with extremist wings of Shi'ite parties long tied to Tehran to sow instability in Iraq.
The Iranian delegation is ostensibly trying to broker a peaceful resolution to the standoff between Sadr's militia and US forces around Najaf, the city an American commander in the theater likened to the Vatican of Shi'ism. But US officials denied statements from Tehran that the delegation was invited to help negotiate a peaceful resolution.
''This issue with Sadr and his illegal militias has to be solved by Iraqis, and not Iranians," Dan Senor, a spokesman for L. Paul Bremer III, the US administrator of Iraq, said yesterday.
Senor pointedly refuted published news reports quoting Iranian officials, who said they had been invited by British officials -- with American consent -- to mediate a peaceful settlement between Sadr and the US-led occupation. He also denied wire service reports that quoted an anonymous State Department official, who told the Associated Press on Wednesday that the United States was aware of the Iranian group's trip to Iraq.
''We were not aware of their work here," Senor said. ''Ambassador Bremer was quite clear that there are no discussions between us and the Iranians."
An official at the Iranian embassy in Baghdad told Reuters that Naimi, the slain diplomat, was not involved with the delegation that had left earlier in the day for Najaf.
Iranian officials have openly criticized US policy in Iraq, saying the country's neighbors should be consulted in decisions about Iraq's future. Occupation authorities here have regularly pointed at the porous Iranian border as a source of instability, and have hinted that some foreign fighters enter the country from Iran, although they have not offered concrete numbers.
''Clearly, there are indications from intelligence folks that there are some Iranian activities going on that are unhelpful," General John Abizaid, commander of the US Central Command, said earlier this week.
US troops have shut down all but a few border crossings with Iran, and have increased military operations to ''prevent some of the illegal movement that had been occurring from Iran," said Lieutenant General Ricardo Sanchez, commander of all ground troops in Iraq.
American and Iraqi officials have speculated that Sadr received funding and training from Iran. He made a well-publicized visit to Iran last summer, and met with former president Ali Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, a hard-liner who has strongly praised Sadr's revolutionary fervor.
Sadr embraces a theocratic, anti-American and anti-Israeli policy that echoes the positions of Iran's conservative establishment.
A senior Iraqi official in the interior ministry who spent more than a decade in exile in Iran and worked with the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq said yesterday that his former host nation was not interested in helping Iraq out of Shi'ite solidarity.
''All of Iraq's neighbors, without exception, are out for their own interests here," Brigadier General Ahmed Ali al-Khafaji said.
Most members of another Shi'ite militia, the Badr Brigade, spent a decade or more in exile in Iran, where they were armed and trained by the SCIRI -- which received much of its support from the Iranian government.
SCIRI has tried to distance itself from Iran since its leaders returned to the country in April, after the fall of Hussein's government.
The Badr Brigade itself has fractionalized since its return to Iraq. Abdelaziz al-Hakim, head of SCIRI, was commander of the Badr Brigade until August, when he formally took control of SCIRI after his brother was murdered. Hakim has endorsed a moderate role for Islam in politics, a break with Tehran's party line. His brother, Ayatollah Mohammed Bakr al-Hakim, SCIRI's founder, was killed in a car bomb attack in Najaf on Aug. 29.
It has long been rumored that Iranian agents were involved in that bombing. The US-led coalition has accused an Al Qaeda-linked terrorist of the bombing, which killed at least 84 others. But one coalition official familiar with the investigation of the case said that hard-line elements of the Badr Brigade, angry over Hakim's softening stance on Islamic government, might have been involved.
That theory holds with the internal split in the Badr Brigade.
Many Badr Brigade members still speak Farsi, the language of Iran, and have left wives and families in Iran when they returned to Iraq this year.
At a checkpoint run by the Badr Brigade 10 miles north of Karbala during the Arba'in pilgrimage last weekend, fighters dressed in black with red badges bantered about the fact that Iraqi police were following their orders. But they didn't joke about their national loyalties.
''We do not get paid from Iraq, we get paid from Iran and that's a known fact," said Abu Haidar al-Jumaili, the Badr officer in charge of the checkpoint.
Globe correspondent Sa'ad Al-Izzi contributed to this report. Thanassis Cambanis can be reached at email@example.com.