BAGHDAD – Iran’s president began a historic visit here Sunday, decrying the presence of foreign troops and subtly criticizing American allies.
In meetings with Iraq’s leaders, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad outlined his nation’s plans to consolidate economic ties with Iraq, speaking within earshot of roaring U.S. helicopters taking off from Landing Zone Washington in the nearby Green Zone.
Nearly five years after the U.S.-led invasion that toppled Saddam Hussein, Ahmadinejad’s visit underscored the realignment of Iraq from a country that once fought Iran in a grinding war to one increasingly within Tehran’s economic, political and cultural orbit of influence.
In his public appearances, Ahmadinejad conveyed a message of friendship and warm ties between Iran and Iraq despite the presence of 160,000 U.S. troops here.
“Iran and Iraq are two friendly nations,” Ahmadinejad said at one of several appearances before the media. “Both have common history and civilization. Both of them have deep, intimate sentimental and social relations.”
Ahmadinejad’s visit, scheduled to end today, was largely billed as a mission about business. According to Iraqi and Iranian officials, private subjects of conversation included the expansion of trade ties, the creation of cross-border industrial zones, the exchange of technical expertise, the integration of banking systems and the launching of joint investment projects in the oil, electricity, transport and heavy industry sectors.
Iran-Iraq trade already totals $8 billion a year. Tehran is now offering Iraq a $1 billion loan in goods and services provided through Iranian companies. Most of the Iranians in Ahmadinejad’s entourage were experts in the fields of economy and energy, rather than security, said Mohammad Marandi, the head of North American studies at Tehran University.
“The more two neighboring countries are integrated economically, the less will be the chance of war breaking out between them,” he said.
The visit was protested by some Sunni Arab groups that resent the influence Shiite Muslim and ethnically Persian Iran has amassed in Iraq in recent years. Sunnis dominated Iraq under Saddam.
The Kirkuk Iraqi Front, a Sunni grouping in northern Iraq, released a statement likening Iran to “a poisoned dagger in the chest of Iraqis.”
The visit comes as the United Nations Security Council prepares to take up another U.S. and European proposal to slap sanctions on Iran for pursuing sensitive nuclear technology that can be used for a weapons program.
The Iranian president mostly steered clear of controversial remarks, though he took a swipe at the U.S.
“The Americans have to understand the facts of the region,” said Ahmadinejad, speaking at a news conference with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. “Iraqi people do not like America.”
He blamed the U.S. for the violence in Iraq and rejected allegations made by American and Iraqi officials that Tehran contributed to Iraq’s chaos by providing weapons and training to militias.
Ahmadinejad also chided Sunni Arab countries such as Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Jordan for not fully embracing Iraq’s Shiite-led government.