Here is an Al-Jazeera report from September 12, 2009 of Iraqi officials and businessmen from Najaf complaining about Iran’s commercial deals in the holy city. While Iran provides the largest number of religious tourists to Najaf, around 1,200 a day, locals accuse Baghdad of signing bad deals that give certain companies a monopoly over the trade. Businesses that were not in on these early contracts claim they can’t compete.
Similar circumstances exist in Karbala, another popular destination for Iranian pilgrims. There, an Iranian company controls all the travel, security, and accommodations for tourists. These contracts are often given out to political allies of Tehran such as firms owned by the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council. Locals there also accused the Supreme Council of setting price controls on local hotels that limited their profits, while the party controlled the province from 2005-2009.
While Iran plays an important role in Iraq’s economy, their activities are seen as a mixed bag. Iranian pilgrims pump millions of dollars into Iraq, and Tehran has heavily invested in improving the infrastructure in both Najaf and Karbala. At the same time the beneficiaries of this business seems to be very narrow, with an eye towards political friends of Tehran. Both cities would be severely hurt if Iranian tourism dried up however, so the current situation is seen as both an opportunity and a necessary evil.
Dagher, Sam, “Devotion and Money Tie Iranians to Iraqi City,” New York Times, 5/31/09
Latif, Nizar, “Resentment grows towards Tehran,” Niqash, 6/1/09
Sly, Liz, “Iranian influence soaring in Iraq,” Chicago Tribune, 3/8/07
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