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Ahmadinejad's Iraq visit bolsters Iran's influence

President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad met with key Iraqi leaders and offered the country a $1 billion loan as he began a two-day visit Sunday.

By Sam DagherCorrespondent, Awadh al-TaieeContributor / March 3, 2008

Neighbors: Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad (l.) shook hands Sunday with his Iraqi counterpart, Jalal Talibani, in Baghdad.

Hadi Mizban/AP

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Arbil, Iraq; and Baghdad

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad arrived in Baghdad Sunday on a landmark visit described by both friend and foe as a crowning moment for Tehran's growing power here and its deepening influence across the Middle East.

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American and Iraqi officials say they hope Mr. Ahmadinejad's arrival will bring a new commitment from Iran to stop its suspected support of Iraqi militants. But many analysts say that's unlikely, because Iran and the US remain at loggerheads on Iraq and many other crucial issues.

"The Iranian intent and vision in Iraq is at cross-purposes with that of the US as long as American troops are in Iraq. The two projects are battling each other in Iraq," says Saad al-Hadithi, an academic at Baghdad University.

But Iraqi leaders of all stripes, even those who previously lamented Iran's sway in Iraq, welcomed the state visit, the first from an Iranian president since the 1979 Islamic Revolution. Iraq's Kurds and Shiites – both of whom have historic ties with Tehran – may be looking to bolster relations with Iran as the future of US involvement here seems increasingly tied to the upcoming presidential election.

"If the US is not there to protect [the Kurds and Shiites], they have no choice but to turn to Iran. Iraq's Shiites know that without a foreign backer, they will be massacred by Sunni Arabs. And the Kurds fear the Turks," says Amir Taheri, a London-based analyst and journalist of Iranian descent.

In contrast to the Iraq visits of American officials, including President Bush, which are never announced for security reasons, Ahmadinejad landed here to much pomp.

At the Baghdad airport, he descended the stairs of his presidential jet smiling and waving. He was greeted with hugs and kisses by top Iraqi officials, including Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari, a Kurd. Hundreds of Kurdish peshmerga, considered the most capable of Iraq's forces, were in charge of security as the convoy carrying Ahmadinejad made its way from the airport to Iraqi President Jalal Talabani's residence.

"I thank God for blessing us with the good fortune to visit Iraq and to meet our dear brothers in oppressed Iraq," Ahmadinejad said in a brief statement after meeting with Mr. Talabani. "Visiting Iraq without the dictator is a truly joyous occasion."

During Saddam Hussein's rule, Iran and Iraq fought a bloody war between 1980 and 1988 that left nearly 1 million dead. For many Iraqis, especially Sunni Arabs, Iran at the time was the epitome of all evil and an extension of the Arab-Persian conflict throughout history. Several monuments commemorating the war still stand in Baghdad. The famous crossed-swords Processional Way monument, within the Green Zone, reads: "Iraqis scored heroic epics in defending their lands against the Persian aggression."

But Iraqi Kurds and the Shiites, who lead the country today, found a common enemy with Iran in the form of Mr. Hussein's regime. Today, analysts say, they see Iran as a natural guarantor of their new power should US troops leave.

"We reminisced about the joint struggle in the old days against the dictatorship … we both wished for the dictatorship to fall.... And here we are welcoming them in Baghdad," said Talabani, as a smiling Ahmadinejad stood by his side.

When asked about the significance of the visit, President Bush said Saturday at his ranch that he didn't see it as a blow to US efforts to isolate Iran. The US is adamantly opposed to Tehran's nuclear program. But Mr. Bush had some advice for what Iraqi leaders should tell the Iranian president. "He's a neighbor. And the message needs to be, quit sending in sophisticated equipment that's killing our citizens."