Iranian Leader, in Baghdad, Hails 'New Chapter' in Ties with Iraq

By Sudarsan Raghavan and Amit R. Paley
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, March 3, 2008

BAGHDAD, March 2 -- As Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad met with Iraq's leaders on Sunday, the first visit by a Middle Eastern head of state since the U.S.-led invasion, he engaged a country in which Iran's influence is deepening but also provoking growing criticism from Iraqis.

Ahmadinejad's visit is the first to Iraq by an Iranian leader since Iran's 1979 revolution, which brought to power a government in Tehran overseen by Shiite Muslim clerics. He arrived at a time when the Bush administration and many Iraqis, who since the 2003 invasion have been confronting wide-scale sectarian violence, are increasingly suspicious of Iran's intentions in their country and the wider Middle East.

Declaring his visit "a new chapter" in Iran's relations with Iraq, the Iranian leader signaled that his country now rivals the United States, the chief financial and military backer of Iraq's government, in terms of influence.

Standing next to Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, a fellow Shiite, Ahmadinejad rejected American assertions, repeated as recently as Saturday by President Bush, that Iran was fueling violence inside Iraq.

"We tell Mr. Bush that accusing others will increase the problems of America in the region and will not solve them," Ahmadinejad told reporters inside the Green Zone, the fortified heart of the Iraqi government and the U.S. diplomatic mission here. "The Americans have to understand the facts of the region. Iraqi people do not like America."

Iraq and Iran fought a brutal eight-year-war in the 1980s during which the U.S. government sided with the Iraqi forces of Saddam Hussein. But after the April 2003 fall of Hussein's government, Iran became one of the first nations to recognize the new U.S.-installed administration.

At the start of his two-day visit Sunday, Ahmadinejad sought to illustrate his nation's rising power in Iraq and the region. He announced a $1 billion low-interest loan to help reconstruct Iraq, and he was welcomed with a red-carpet ceremony, a marching band and much fanfare.

His visit also brought Maliki's government a greater measure of diplomatic legitimacy, a shoulder-to-shoulder display of strength between the only two Shiite-run nations in a region dominated by U.S.-backed Sunni Arab rulers who view them with suspicion.

The divisions over Iran mirror Iraq's own political and sectarian divides. The sectarian tensions were visible in parts of Iraq in the days leading up to Ahmadinejad's visit and as he embraced its leaders Sunday. Protests erupted last week in Sunni strongholds such as Diyala province and on Sunday in Fallujah, as well as in some Shiite and mixed areas.

On Sunday, a crowd of 250 Sunni and Shiite tribal leaders protested in the northern city of Kirkuk, clutching banners that read: "No to the Iranian interference in Iraq" and "We demand the Iranian regime stop its support to the militias and sabotage teams."

Many Iraqis, particularly among the minority Sunni population that ran the country under Hussein, view Iran as meddling for strategic gains, using Iraq as an arena to undermine the proclaimed U.S. political project to bring more democratic governance to the Middle East. Many Iraqis also believe Iran's reach extends into Iraqi ministries and security forces.

"We reject the Iranian interference in all its shapes and forms," said Falah Hadi al-Saadoun, a Sunni tribal leader in Baqubah, the capital of Diyala province.

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