Iran says ready to fill vacuum in Iraq left by U.S.By Edmund Blair
TEHRAN (Reuters) - President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said on Tuesday the power of the United States was rapidly collapsing in Iraq and that Iran was ready to step in to help fill the vacuum, in comments likely to irritate Washington.
"The political power of the occupiers (of Iraq) is being destroyed rapidly and very soon we will be witnessing a great power vacuum in the region," Ahmadinejad told a news conference broadcast live on state television.
Ahmadinejad also rejected reports that Iran had slowed sensitive nuclear work which the West fears is aimed at making atom bombs, and said it would respond if the United States branded the elite Revolutionary Guards a terrorist force.
With Shi'ite Muslims now in power in Baghdad, ties have strengthened between Iran and Iraq since 2003, when U.S.-led forces toppled Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, a Sunni Arab who waged an eight-year war against Iran in the 1980s.
But the U.S. military accuses the Islamic Republic of arming and training militias that are behind some of the violence ravaging Iraq. Iran rejects the charge and blames the presence of U.S. forces, numbering about 162,000, for the violence.
"They are trapped in the swamp of their own crimes and have no choice but to accept the failure and accept the independence and rights of the Iraqi nation," Ahmadinejad said.
"If you stay in Iraq for another 50 years nothing will improve, it will just worsen."
Earlier this month, Washington's envoy to Iraq warned Americans that pulling out U.S. troops could open the door to a "major Iranian advance" that would threaten U.S. interests in the region.
Opinion polls suggest most Americans have turned against the four-year-old war and Democrats in Congress want President George W. Bush to start pulling out U.S. troops as soon as possible. Bush has resisted the calls.
During a two-hour press conference, Ahmadinejad denied reports that Iran's progress was slowing in its nuclear programme. "These (reports) are not true," he said.
Diplomats in Vienna have said Iran's atomic work seems to have slowed in pace this summer and Tehran appeared to have fewer than the 3,000 centrifuges, used in enriching uranium, that it planned to have working by the end of July.
Enriched uranium can be used to power nuclear plants or, if refined to a high enough degree, provides the basis for bombs.
Ahmadinejad, voicing continued defiance in the face of Western demands that it suspend uranium enrichment, said Iran was now a nuclear country and was mastering the complete nuclear fuel cycle.
"I want to officially announce to you that from our viewpoint the issue of Iran's nuclear case has been closed. Today Iran is a nuclear Iran, meaning that it has the complete cycle for fuel production," he said.
Iran says its atomic work is aimed solely at generating electricity so that it can export more of its gas and oil.
U.S. officials said this month Washington may soon name the Revolutionary Guards as a foreign terrorist group, a move that would enable the United States to target the force's finances.
Ahmadinejad, himself a former Guards commander, said he believed it was "highly unlikely that the American government will take such an illogical approach ... it would be a joke I guess".
But he added: "They know that any action against the Iranian nation would be met with a proper response."
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