BAGHDAD, Nov 21 (Reuters) More than 300,000 Iraqis including 600 Shi'ite tribal leaders have signed a petition accusing Iran of sowing ''disorder'' in southern Iraq, a group of sheikhs involved in the campaign said.
The sheikhs showed Reuters two thick bundles of notes which contained original signatures. The sheikhs said more than 300,000 people had signed the pages.
Such a public and organised display of animosity toward neighbouring Shi'ite Iran is rare in Iraq. Iranian influence has grown steadily, especially in the predominantly Shi'ite south, since the US-led invasion toppled Saddam Hussein in 2003.
''More than 300,000 people from the southern provinces condemned the interference of the Iranian regime in Iraq and especially in spreading security disorder in the provinces,'' the sheikhs said in a statement.
They did not elaborate, but Washington and the US military accuse Iran of arming, training and funding Shi'ite militias in Iraq. Iran denies the charge and blames the violence in Iraq on the US invasion.
The sheikhs declined to be identified for fear of retribution.
They said various groups had been collecting the signatures for six months across southern Iraq. It was not immediately clear what they planned to do with the petition.
With Shi'ite Muslims in power in Baghdad after the ouster of Saddam, a Sunni Arab who was an enemy of Tehran, ties have strengthened between the two oil-producing states.
But some Iraqis chafe at the influence of Iran's more conservative brand of religion in the south.
Shi'ites comprise around 60 per cent of Iraq's population, generally put at 26-27 million before the 2003 invasion.
''The most poisonous dagger stabbed in us, the Iraqi Shi'ites, is the (Iranian) regime shamefully exploiting the Shi'ite sect to implement its evil goals,'' the statement said.
''They have targeted our national interests and began planning to divide Iraq and to separate the southern provinces from Iraq.'' Iran routinely pledges its support for a stable Iraq, and political leaders from Baghdad regularly visit Tehran.
STRICT ISLAMIC RULES The statement said that besides 600 Shi'ite tribal leaders, the petition was signed by a number of lawyers, engineers, doctors and university professors.
The group of sheikhs is the same one that told Reuters last month that Shi'ite Islamist political parties were imposing strict Islamic rules in southern Iraq and using their armed wings to create a state of fear.
Such fears are not unfounded -- two provincial governors were blown up by roadside bombs in August, apparent victims of infighting between the Shi'ite parties for political dominance in the region, source of most of Iraq's oil wealth.
Aides to Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, the reclusive religious leader of Iraq's Shi'ites, have also been killed.
The Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council (SIIC) and the movement of cleric Moqtada al-Sadr are the dominant political forces in the Shi'ite provinces. Both have links to neighbouring Iran and believe Iraq should be governed according to Islamic principles.
SIIC and the Sadrists saw their rise to power cemented by the December 2005 elections which brought the Islamist Shi'ite Alliance to power. The Sadrists have since pulled out of the Alliance and the government of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, leader of the smaller Islamist Dawa party.
The growing strength of the Shi'ite parties in the south has weakened some secular tribal leaders and excluded them from power structures, a source of patronage and revenues.
REUTERS RSA KN2128