By ANNA JOHNSON
The Associated Press
Tuesday, March 4, 2008; 2:09 AM
BAGHDAD -- Iran's firebrand president wrapped up his landmark visit to Iraq with a bit of added swagger Monday_ insisting that U.S. power is crippling the region and portraying himself as the enduring partner of Baghdad's Shiite-led government.
The parting words and posturing _ like nearly every moment of Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's two-day trip _ was powerful political theater seeking to emphasize Iran's growing bonds with its former enemy. U.S. officials had a front row seat.
Ahmadinejad, the first Iranian leader to visit Iraq since Iran's 1979 Islamic Revolution, had no direct dealings with American envoys or the military. But Washington and its Sunni Arab allies were high on his agenda _ taking every opportunity to send messages about Shiite Iran's rising influence in the region and its special ties to Iraq's Shiite majority.
For Washington, however, this is not a new lesson.
The toppling of Saddam Hussein's Sunni-heavy regime opened the door for Iran's inroads into the nation it battled during a horrific 1980-88 war that claimed an estimated 1 million lives. The United States _ despite having no diplomatic ties with Tehran and accusing Iran of aiding Shiite militias _ opened groundbreaking dialogue with Iranian officials last year that acknowledged the Islamic Republic as a critical player in Iraq.
The next step _ from the vantage point of Washington and its Iraqi allies _ is seeing whether Ahmadinejad's visit translates into a clearer Iranian role in helping stabilize Iraq at a time when violence is dropping and insurgents are under increasing military pressure.
"Iraq and Iran having been deadly enemies, and (Ahmadinejad's visit) shows they have turned a page," said Rand Corp. analyst and former U.S. diplomat James Dobbins.
Iraq's Shiite power bases _ both in top posts and on the streets _ will be the most closely watched barometers for any possible changes following the visit.
Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, a Shiite, and President Jalal Talabani, a Kurd, may now have a more direct pipeline to Tehran for dialogue on Shiite trouble spots. Among the top worries: keeping a lid on Shiite factions clashing for control in the oil-rich south and breakaway Shiite groups that Washington accuses of receiving aid from Iran.
Iran already has appeared to cut its backing for radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, who directs the vast Mahdi Army militia. Instead, Tehran has thrown its weight behind al-Sadr's rival, Abdul-Aziz al-Hakim, the country's most powerful Shiite political insider and supporter of al-Maliki's government.
Ahmadinejad met with al-Hakim during his visit. In front of live TV crews, Ahmadinejad also held hands and exchanged kisses with the president, Talabani, who told Ahmadinejad to call him "Uncle Jalal."
While the U.S. military has said the flow of Iranian weapons into Iraq has slowed, it has stepped up its accusations that Iran is backing so-called "special groups" _ the term for Shiite factions that have broken away from al-Sadr and are responsible for a flurry of deadly rocket attacks recently.
At the United Nations, meanwhile, the U.N. Security Council approved a third round of trade sanctions against Iran for its refusal to suspend uranium enrichment that Washington and others worry could be part of a clandestine nuclear arms program. Iran claims it only seeks energy-producing reactors.
Ahmadinejad repeatedly referred to Iraq as a "brotherly" neighbor, but showed no gentler side toward Baghdad's American allies. He blamed the United States for spreading terrorism in the region, demanded the United States withdraw its forces and dismissed allegations that Tehran is training Shiite militants who target U.S. troops.
"The presence of foreigners in the region has been to the detriment of the nations of the region," Ahmadinejad said during a news conference. "It is nothing but a humiliation to the regional nations."
He even took a swipe at President Bush for the tight security bubble around his visits to the country.
Unlike Bush's trips to Iraq, Ahmadinejad announced his journey in advance, drove in a motorcade down Baghdad's airport road_ once known as "The Highway of Death" _ spent the night and even traveled to a Shiite holy shrine in northern Baghdad, albeit under the cover of night.
"The visits should be declared and open. And all those who come on stealth visits, we should ask them why they visit this country in a stealth manner?" Ahmadinejad said.
Despite the beefed-up Iraqi security in some parts of Baghdad for Ahmadinejad's visit, at least 24 people were reportedly killed in two suicide car bombings in different parts of the city, police and hospital officials said. The U.S. military reported 11 people had died in the attacks. The reason for the discrepancy was not immediately clear.
U.S. officials have tried to brush aside the significance of Ahmadinejad's visit, and the White House on Monday disputed Ahmadinejad's statement that Iran was not aiding terrorists.
"Nice words for him to say in the middle of Baghdad, but the facts on the ground prove otherwise," Gordon Johndroe, a spokesman for Bush's National Security Council, told reporters traveling with Bush back to Washington.
Richard Russell, who lectures on national security at the National Defense University, also raised suspicions about Iranian motives.
Iran's agenda includes establishing "a clandestine infrastructure in Iraq," and Tehran is "planning to have more influence domestically inside Iraq as Americans downsize their presence," he said.
Some Iraqis, both Sunnis and Shiites, say it is precisely that influence _ and the power struggle between the Washington and Tehran _ that worries them.
About 1,000 protesters in a Sunni-dominated neighborhood in Baghdad protested Ahmadinejad's visit Monday, a day after scattered demonstrations greeted his arrival.
"We do not want our country to pay the price of the current U.S.-Iraq disputes. The Iraqis' decisions should be independent and not tied to any other country," said Sheik Salah al-Obeidi, a spokesman for al-Sadr in the Shiite holy city of Najaf.
Associated Press writers Qassim Abdul-Zahra in Baghdad and Carley Petesch in New York contributed to this report.