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.
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."
At a press conference after meeting with Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, Ahmadinejad responded to Bush's remark: "You can tell Mr. Bush that accusing others will only complicate America's problems in the region. They must come to terms with the realities: the Iraqi people do not like Americans."
A US military spokesman in Baghdad said that Iran continues to train and fund Shiite militias in Iraq, particularly the so-called "special groups," adding that one of the leaders of such groups that are accused of attacking both US and Iraqi forces was arrested Sunday south of the capital.
"He received paramilitary and EFP training in Iran," he said, referring to armor-destroying bombs called explosively formed penetrators that the US accuses Iran of manufacturing.
But Mr. Maliki hailed Iran's contribution to improved security. "I can honestly say that the Islamic Republic's recent position has been very helpful in bolstering security and stability," he said. He urged Arab states, who barely have any ties with Iraq, to look at Ahmadinejad's visit as a "model."
Ahmadinejad is also scheduled to meet with Abdul-Aziz al-Hakim, leader of the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq (ISCI) and one of the country's top ruling Shiite parties that is closest to Iran, before leaving on Monday morning.
"There is no doubt that Iraq and Iran have many common interests … this visit makes me very optimistic about the future," says Jalaleddin al-Saghir, a senior parliamentarian from Mr. Hakim's party.
Other Shiites who had been critical of Iran in the past also spoke favorably about the visit. In the shrine city of Najaf, Salah al-Obeidi, the spokesman for cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, one of Hakim's main rivals, welcomed the visit "as long as it brought benefit to Iraq."
In Basra, where Iran holds sway, Ghazi Smari, a provincial official from the Fadhila Party, says that the governor, who is from the same party and who just last week accused the Iranian consulate of plotting to kill him, also welcomed the visit.
"There was a misunderstanding. The consulate did not want to kill him, but they had information about an assassination plot. You know the consulate's intelligence apparatus is far more powerful than that of the province," says Mr. Smari.
The only dissent regarding Ahmadinejad's visit came from Sunni Arab tribal leaders, supported by the US to fight Al Qaeda in the western province of Anbar. "Iran is the No. 1 enemy of Iraq. I would have never let a man like this enter Iraq," says Sheikh Jabbar al-Fahdawi, accusing Iran of being behind recent attacks on US-funded Sunni guards.
One analyst says Ahmadinejad's trip is meant much more for his domestic audience, particularly given the upcoming elections there.
"Almost all of this is for local Iranian consumption … the Iranian policy now is to bleed the US slowly in Iraq until [President] Bush leaves office and the new US president withdraws from Iraq, then they move in as the big power," says Mr. Taheri, the London analyst.
There was little opportunity for Iraqi reporters to question the Iranian president. But in a brief question-and-answer period, one reporter asked Ahmadinejad about the purpose of his visit to Iraq at this time.
"There is nothing out of the ordinary when brothers meet, you know how deep our ties are," he said quickly, adding in Arabic: "You can see it with your own eyes now."