Reuters: Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad will make a landmark visit to Baghdad on March 2 for talks with Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki and other officials, Iraq said on Thursday. By Dean Yates
BAGHDAD (Reuters) – Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad will make a landmark visit to Baghdad on March 2 for talks with Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki and other officials, Iraq said on Thursday.
Ahmadinejad’s visit will be the first to Iraq by the president of the Islamic Republic, which is at loggerheads with the United States over the causes of violence in Iraq as well as Tehran’s nuclear programme.
Washington accuses Iran of giving weapons and training to Shi’ite militias in Iraq, including armour-piercing bombs known as explosively formed penetrators (EFPs) that have killed hundreds of U.S. troops. Tehran denies the charges.
Iran, a predominantly Shi’ite Muslim country, and Iraq fought an eight-year war in the 1980s in which hundreds of thousands were killed.
Ties have improved since Sunni Arab strongman Saddam Hussein was ousted in the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003 and a Shi’ite Islamist-led government came to power in Baghdad.
Iraqi government spokesman Ali al-Dabbagh said Ahmadinejad would visit Iraq for two days.
“It’s significant in the sense that Iraq wants to have good relations with Iran (but) there should be no interference in Iraq’s internal affairs,” Dabbagh told Reuters. Both Iraqi President Jalal Talabani and Maliki have visited Iran.
Dabbagh added Iran should respect Iraq’s choice to have relations with the countries it chose to.
Hassan Kazemi-Qomi, Iran’s ambassador to Iraq, told the official IRNA news agency the trip would take place on March 2.
Some analysts have said the visit would irk Washington, but the White House on Thursday voiced support for the trip, so long as Iran stopped supporting militias in Iraq. Ahmadinejad often speaks out against the U.S. military presence in Iraq.
“We want Iran and Iraq to have good relations,” White House spokesman Gordon Johndroe said in a statement. “The fastest way for that to happen is for Iran to stop supporting extremists in Iraq who kill innocent Iraqis and Americans.”
A Tehran-based Iranian analyst said the visit would be a setback to Washington’s efforts to isolate Iran.
“(The visit) will go against American propaganda against Iran,” said the analyst, who declined to be identified.
“(The Americans) are saying Iraqi leaders are not happy with Iranian interference and provocation inside Iraq. This visit will show Iraqi leaders are not really concerned with an Iranian threat … They are not openly opposing the Iranian position.”
The announcement of the date for Ahmadinejad’s visit came hours after Iraqi officials said Iran had postponed talks with the United States on improving security in Iraq. Those talks had been scheduled to take place in Baghdad on Friday.
“This was supposed to take place on this week’s Friday, but based on latest evaluation and because of technical issues, these negotiations have been postponed but we are still firm on holding them,” Kazemi-Qomi told IRNA.
Iraq’s U.S.-backed government, still dependent on U.S. forces to protect its borders, has said it does not want to be caught in the middle of any Washington/Tehran dispute.
In 1980, the Iraq-Iran war was triggered by a quarrel over the Shatt al-Arab waterway forming their common southern border. It was one of the deadliest conflicts in Middle East history.
(Additional reporting by Edmund Blair in Tehran and Matt Spetalnick in Washington)