With its Sunni-dominated political elite, Iraq was regarded as the regional counterweight to Iran's Shia influence.

But the toppling of Saddam Hussein's regime has changed the political forces in Iraq and the Shia community is now a renewed political force.

Political analysts say an unintended consequence of the US invasion of Iraq has been to remove a major bulwark to the perceived threat of Iranian encroachment in the Middle East. They say Iranian influence in the region is in the ascendant.

The Iranians want an immediate withdrawal of US troops from Iraq. However, the US is concerned that an independent Iraq, with a majority Shia population, would be inclined to be pro-Iran and not be supportive of US political interests in the Middle East.

So how can a regional balance be secured? Will it depend on a re-invigorated Iraq or a permanent US presence? 

And what may happen if the current strategic dynamics between Sunni and Shia constituencies in the region take hold permanently?

Our guests this week:

Professor Mansour Farhang from Bennington University in Vermont, Raul Marc Gerecht, a fellow resident at the American Enterprise Institute, and Tony Benn, a former British cabinet minister.

Watch part one of this episode of Inside Iraq

Watch part two of this episode of Inside Iraq

This episode of Inside Iraq aired on Friday, May 23, 2008

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