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.
Iraq's Shiite majority and the Kurdish minority, both brutally suppressed under Hussein, are also divided internally over Iran's rising influence. But to Iraq's president, Jalal Talabani, a Kurd, the welcome accorded Ahmadinejad was an Iraqi expression of gratitude toward an Iranian government that also opposed Hussein.
Talabani and his fellow Kurds once fought alongside Iranian troops against Hussein, who used poison gas against the Kurdish population of northern Iraq. Top Shiite leaders such as Abdul Aziz al-Hakim spent years in exile in Tehran.
"By this historical visit of our brother Dr. Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, we have first renewed the feelings of mutual struggle and jihad, which goes back a long time ago against the dictatorship," Talabani told reporters.
"A visit to Iraq without the dictator is a truly happy one," said Ahmadinejad, dressed in his trademark gray suit with white shirt and no tie.
The pomp and ceremony, in public and on television, sharply contrasted with the surprise visits to Iraq by President Bush and former British prime minister Tony Blair.
Iraq and Iran are expected to sign as many as 10 economic agreements before Ahmadinejad leaves on Monday, including ones involving electricity and oil projects. Among the items to be discussed is the status of the Shatt al Arab, a waterway where the Tigris and Euphrates rivers meet and which divides Iran and Iraq.
"The Iranian role in Iraq, this role is seen by the majority of the people as being a positive one," said Abbas Bayati, a Shiite legislator close to Maliki.
Senior Iraqi politicians said they would also use the visit as an opportunity to address concerns. Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari, a Kurd, said the Iraqi government has repeatedly complained to Tehran of Iran's alleged support and training of armed groups inside Iraq.
That message would be conveyed again to Ahmadinejad, he said. But he added that Iran in recent months has helped rein in militias, especially the Mahdi Army of Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr. Sadr's movement has long denied any ties to Iran.
"We hope to engage, not to frighten them about our long-term relationship with the United States," Zebari said. "We will reassure them that Iraq will not be a launching pad for the United States to make attacks on Iran."
In interviews last week, U.S. military officials accused Iran of fueling violence inside Iraq, including targeting U.S. forces with rockets and roadside bombs.
Citing accounts from Iraqis in U.S. military custody, U.S. officials said Iranian operatives were training Iraqis as fighters and as trainers themselves, in camps inside Iran. The officials said U.S. forces had detained as many as a dozen Iraqis who trained in those camps last September through November.
"The intent has not changed -- populating Iraq with highly trained militants," said a senior U.S. military official who spoke on the condition of anonymity because of the sensitivity of the issue. "Iran does not want to see coalition forces in this relationship with Iraq on a positive footing. Its greatest goal would be to embarrass the West."
In Iran, a closer relationship with Iraq is seen as an economic opportunity and a chance for Iran to wield greater regional influence through its Kurdish and Shiite allies in Iraq, according to interviews with Iranian officials and analysts.
But a backlash could also result inside Iran from the government's assistance to Iraq. Many Iranians want compensation for attacks on civilians committed by Hussein's government during the 1980s. Iran's billion-dollar loan could cause tension.
"Iranian people will not be happy with that," said Davoud Hermidas Bavand, an international law professor at Allameh Tabatabi University in Tehran. "Still, it's the policy of the current Iranian government to build stronger relations between the two countries on an economic basis. A loan could be useful for that."
Nowhere is Iran's growing influence more visible than in the southern city of Najaf, where as many as 2,000 Iranian pilgrims arrive daily to pray at the Imam Ali shrine, one of the world's holiest Shiite shrines.
"All the economy in Najaf -- the grocer, the butcher, the cloth sellers, everything in Najaf, even the juice stores and the restaurants to the pushcart vendors -- they all rely on the Iranian pilgrims," said Qassim al-Shibly, 30, owner of a jewelry store.
Ahmed Duaibel, spokesman for the Najaf Governorate, said Iranian government grants have paid for reconstructing sections of the Imam Ali shrine. Iranian funds have provided the city with garbage trucks and built an eye and kidney hospital, a medical clinic, a telecommunications center and a power station.
"There are also lots of projects which will be accomplished and there are lots of agreements with Iranian companies," Duaibel said.
Among Iraq's leadership, reaction to Ahmadinejad's visit was mixed, differing by sect.
"The Kurds should look at the broader picture. You have 53 Islamic countries in the world. Only Iran is led by Shiites. All the others are Arab Sunnis," said Mahmoud Othman, an influential independent Kurdish politician. "I hope we get closer together. We help their ambitions and they help our ambitions."
Adnan al-Dulaimi, the head of the Iraqi Accordance Front, the largest Sunni bloc in parliament, said the best evidence of Iran's growing influence in Iraq is that U.S. officials have engaged in talks with Iran in order to stabilize Iraq.
"This is like a kind of international confession that Iran has an enormous influence and role inside Iraq," Dulaimi said.
Shiite leaders said they hoped Iraq's other neighbors will forge closer ties with the Iraqi government.
"The visit of the President Ahmadinejad is a good step," said Falah Hassan Shanshal, a Sadr legislator. "We really need to start a new page, especially with the neighboring countries. We need those countries not to interfere with our internal affairs."
Correspondent Thomas Erdbrink in Tehran and special correspondents Saad al-Izzi and Zaid Sabah in Baghdad and Washington Post staff in Najaf and Diyala province contributed to this report.