Iran president visits Baghdad

March 2, 2008 3:20:55 PM PST
Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said on an historic trip to Baghdad Sunday that America fueled the violence in Iraq, portraying his nation as a close friend of the neighbor it once fought in a bitter eight-year war. Ahmadinejad, the first Iranian president to visit Iraq, disputed U.S. allegations that Tehran is training and equipping Shiite militias there. The American presence, he said, was responsible for drawing terrorists.

"The Iraqi people do not like the Americans," Ahmadinejad said at a press conference with U.S.-backed Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki in the Green Zone - the heart of the American diplomatic presence.

"Six years ago, there were no terrorists in our region. As soon as the others landed in this country and the region, we witnessed their arrival and presence," Ahmadinejad said Sunday night after meeting Abdul-Aziz al-Hakim, the leader of Iraq's largest Shiite political bloc.

The trip by Ahmadinejad, who once fought Saddam Hussein's Sunni-dominated regime as a member of Iran's Revolutionary Guard, was a dramatic illustration of one of the unintended consequences of the 2003 U.S. invasion - the replacement of Saddam with Shiite forces closely allied to the cleric-led Islamic republic next door.

Iraqi President Jalal Talabani, a Sunni Kurd, greeted Ahmadinejad with an honor guard and a band that played both countries' national anthems. The two held hands at the red-carpet welcome ceremony in a traditional display of friendship. Talabani told Ahmadinejad to call him "Uncle Jalal," as he known in Iraq's Kurdish north.

Talabani said he and Ahmadinejad discussed economic, political, security and oil issues and planned to sign several unspecified agreements.

"We had very good talks that were friendly and brotherly," Ahmadinejad said. "We have mutual understandings and views in all fields, and both sides plan to improve relations as much as possible."

Then he cut through the Green Zone to visit al-Maliki in his Cabinet offices.

The sprawling, American-controlled zone contains a massive new U.S. embassy and is heavily protected against occasional rocket attacks, which the Americans have blamed on Iranian-backed Shiite extremists.

Ahmadinejad denied the charges at least twice during the day.

"Such accusations increase the problems of the Americans in the region," he said.

Al-Maliki said Ahmadinejad's visit was "an expression of the strong desire of enhancing relations and developing mutual interests after the past tension during the dictatorship era."

About 1 million people died in the catastrophic war that erupted after Saddam invaded Iran in 1980. But when Saddam's regime fell to the U.S.-led invasion and Iraq's Shiite majority took power, long-standing ties between the Shiites of both countries flourished again.

Ahmadinejad said he was "very pleased with his visit to an Iraq not ruled by a dictator," and stressed that Iran wanted a stable Iraq that would benefit the region.

"A united Iraq, a sovereign Iraq and an advanced Iraq is to the benefit of all regional nations and the people of Iran," he said.

He announced the dates of his visit in advance, landed at Baghdad International Airport in daylight and drove through the capital, albeit in a heavily guarded convoy, on a relatively quiet day. Iraqi forces provided security.

President Bush's visits are typically a surprise and involve trips to U.S. military bases, like his journey to an air base in Anbar province last September.

Bush said Saturday that he had advised al-Maliki to tell the Iranian leader to "quit sending in sophisticated equipment that's killing our citizens." And the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Adm. Mike Mullen, came to Baghdad unannounced to visit with commanders and Iraqi officials.

Rear Adm. Gregory Smith, a military spokesman, said Sunday that the U.S. hopes the Iranian-Iraqi meetings produce "real and tangible results," which in the American view would include Iran ending its alleged training and funding of extremists.

Iraqi officials have said in recent weeks that they don't want the country torn apart in a power struggle between the U.S. and Iran.

Hundreds of protesters gathered in Fallujah, the scene of two battles between U.S. troops and Sunni insurgents, and demonstrated for an hour against Ahmadinejad's visit.

"The chieftains of Fallujah condemn the visit of Ahmadinejad to Baghdad," one of their banners read. Another 50 people demonstrated against the visit in northern Kirkuk, and tribal chieftains in the country's Shiite-dominated southern region signed a petition against the visit.

Adnan al-Dulaimi, one of Iraq's most influential Sunni politicians, called for restraint. He said the visit indicated the strong Iranian influence in Iraq but hoped it would decrease tension between the two countries.

"We call upon the United States and Iran not to make Iraq a field for their struggle," he said.