Sunday March 2, 2008
Ahmadinejad says Iraq visit opens new chapter in ties
By Wisam Mohammed
BAGHDAD (Reuters) - Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad hailed a new chapter in ties with Iraq on Sunday, saying he was "truly happy" to make a landmark trip to Baghdad now that Iran's arch-foe Saddam Hussein had been deposed.
He is the first Iranian president to visit Iraq since Saddam launched a ruinous eight-year war on Iran in 1980 in which a million people died.
Ahmadinejad's trip is as much about symbolism as about cementing ties between the neighbours, both run by Shi'ite majorities.
It is seen as a show of support for the Iraqi government and an act of defiance against Iran's longtime enemy, the United States, which has over 150,000 troops Iraq.
"This visit will open a new chapter in the two countries' bilateral relations and it will help the atmosphere of cooperation in the region," Ahmadinejad told a joint news conference with Iraqi President Jalal Talabani.
"A visit to Iraq without the dictator is a truly happy one," he said, referring to Saddam, Iran's arch-foe who was deposed in a U.S.-led invasion in 2003 and executed by the Iraqi government in December 2006.
Relations between Iran and Iraq have markedly improved since the 2003 invasion that ousted Saddam. Many of Iraq's Shi'ite leaders were in exile in Iran during Saddam's long rule.
Analysts say Ahmadinejad will use his visit to show Washington that Tehran is a power in Iraq that cannot be ignored. The Iranian president has sought to counter U.S. efforts to isolate Tehran over its disputed nuclear programme by seeking to improve ties with Arab states in the region.
An official at the French embassy said European Union ambassadors would meet Ahmadinejad during his visit. But there are no plans for U.S. ambassador Ryan Crocker to hold any talks with him, U.S. embassy spokesman Phil Reeker said.
U.S. officials in Baghdad have said they will play no role in Ahmadinejad's visit and that the U.S. military will not be involved in protecting him as he travels around.
Ahmadinejad has repeatedly called for U.S. forces to leave Iraq, blaming them for violence that has killed tens of thousands of Iraqis since the 2003 invasion.
SUPPORT FOR MILITIAS
Washington says Tehran supplies weapons and training to Shi'ite militias to attack U.S. troops, a charge Tehran denies. Analysts say Iran seeks a stable Iraq but at the same time wants to make life difficult for occupying American forces.
"A developed, powerful and united Iraq is to the advantage of everyone," said Ahmadinejad, the first Iranian president to visit since the 1979 Islamic Revolution.
Ahmadinejad received a red carpet welcome at Talabani's presidential palace, with a military band greeting him on his arrival. After talks with Talabani, he was due to meet Prime Minister Nuri al- Maliki and Vice President Adel Abdul-Mahdi.
A noticeable absence from the welcoming party was Vice President Tareq al-Hashemi, a member of Iraq's minority Sunni Arab community that was dominant under Saddam. No other Sunni Arab politicians were present.
At the joint news conference with Ahmadinejad, Talabani said Iraq would seek to oust Iranian rebels based in Iraq, a long- time Iranian demand that was expected to be raised during Ahmadinejad's two-day state visit.
"The presence of those terrorists is forbidden by the constitution and we are working to get rid of them," he said.
Ahmadinejad is the first regional leader to visit since the 2003 invasion. Both Iran and Iraq are run by Shi'ite Muslim majorities in a region dominated by Sunni Arabs, who are wary of the rise to power of Shi'ites, a minority in Islam.
Provincial officials in the southern cities of Kerbala and Najaf, home to several of Shi'ite Islam's holiest sites that draw millions of pilgrims, said they were expecting a visit by Ahmadinejad on Monday.
That leg of his trip has not been officially confirmed. It is not clear whether he would drive or fly by helicopter. Driving would mean passing through the "triangle of death", a notorious hotbed of Sunni Islamist al Qaeda militants.
After arriving at Baghdad's airport, Ahmadinejad's motorcade drove to Talabani's house. Foreign dignitaries visiting Iraq normally fly by helicopter to avoid the dangerous airport road.
And unlike the strict secrecy that surrounds the unannounced visits by U.S. President George W. Bush to reduce the risk of an insurgent attack, Ahmadinejad's trip has been well-flagged.
Also, unlike Bush, he will be spending the night.
(Additional reporting by Dean Yates, Ahmed Rasheed, Aseel Kami, Mariam Karouny, Paul Tait and Mohammed Abbas)
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