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Iran poised to fill vacuum after U.S. withdrawal

By Richard Engel, NBC chief foreign correspondent

BAGHDAD - Every conversation I have in Iraq these days reaches back in history. When I ask policemen, government officials or Iraqi journalists what they think will happen after U.S. combat troops leave at the end of this month, our discussions inevitably become two-hour examinations of Islamic and Middle Eastern history. This is not simply an American pullout. Here August 2010 is seen as a turning point for Iraq.

The biggest concern many Iraqis seem to have is that the U.S. combat withdrawal will leave a power vacuum that will be filled by Iraq’s traditional rival and longtime enemy, Persian Iran. For seven years the United States has exerted its influence in Iraq bluntly, sending in troops, tanks and contractors. Iran’s strategy to influence its neighbor has been slower, cheaper, but also effective.

In the early 16th century, just a few decades after Christopher Columbus landed on America’s shores, the last great Islamic empire was fighting to rule the Middle East, the Mediterranean and the rest of the world. From his capital on the Bosporus, Istanbul, the hero of the Ottoman Empire Sultan Suliman “The Magnificent” seemed undefeatable. Suliman’s mission was to impose Ottoman domination around the globe. His call to war was jihad. Suliman believed he was a Muslim successor to the Roman Caesars. He liked to be called Caesar. Suliman’s dream was to unite the world under one ruler and one God. Suliman’s ability to raise soldiers, build warships and transport armies was unmatched by his Christian adversaries in Europe. Suliman skillfully used North African corsairs, Christian mercenaries and slaves and an elite corps of riflemen armed with arquebuses to spread the Ottoman superpower.

While European armies fought Suliman with stone-ball cannons, swords and “Greek Fire” - a medieval flamethrower - one city-state tried a different approach to confront the Ottomans. The Venetians were the great shippers of the age. It was a lucrative trade that made the people of St. Mark so wealthy they built their almost magical capital on water. Despite their riches, the Venetians knew they could never confront Suliman in a direct flight. So the Venetians played coy and used politics. The Venetian strategy was to undermine the Ottoman Empire from within. They spied relentlessly on the Ottoman court, the “Sublime Porte” in Istanbul’s opulent Topkapi palace. They bribed Ottoman officials handsomely. They bought Suilman’s advisers summarily. It allowed the Venetians to confront a superpower, at least for a while.

Five centuries years later, many Iraqis believe Iran has played a similar game with the United States in Iraq. Iran knew it could never take on American army divisions and Air Force wings in a direct confrontation in Iraq. So Iran infiltrated the Iraqi government. For seven years Iran has spied relentlessly on Iraqi governments in the Topkapi of today, Baghdad’s grim, prison-like Green Zone. Iran has bribed Iraqi officials handsomely. Iran has bought Iraqi advisers summarily. It has allowed Iran to confront a superpower, at least for a while.

Iran could well be the biggest benefactor of the American withdrawal.

Richard Engel will be providing special coverage throughout the U.S. drawdown. Check back here at worldblog.msnbc.com and at nightly.msnbc.com to follow his reports.