Iran's Ahmadinejad Makes Historic Visit to Iraq

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad made history on Sunday when he arrived in Baghdad for a two-day state visit. He is the first Iranian president ever to visit Iraq.

Part of the reason Ahmadinejad traveled to Iraq was to show that the war the two countries fought just 20 years ago is behind them.

He couldn't have asked for a better greeting than the one he received in Baghdad. There was an honor guard, a red carpet and a military band that played both the Iraqi and Iranian national anthems.

In many ways, Ahmadinejad came for all the pomp and circumstance. Arriving just days before parliamentary elections in his own country, Ahmadinejad is seeking to burnish his foreign policy credentials. Sunday's high-visibility love fest with the Iraqi leadership was clearly calculated for effect.

"It underscores the fact that in the eyes of Arabs, as well as the United States and the West, that Iran is a player, an important player in Iraq," said Vali Nasr, a professor of international politics at Tufts University.

To drive that point home, Ahmadinejad talked about friendly, even brotherly, relations with Iraq.

"The two peoples, Iraqis and Iranians, will remain always side by side," he said. "This visit will open a new page in the bilateral relations."

When asked at a news conference with Iraqi President Jalal Talabani why he had decided to visit now, Ahmadinejad joked about family needing to visit family.

"No one would ask why brothers meet, but question why brothers do not meet," he said.

The two presidents said they discussed economic, political, security and oil issues and said the two sides would sign agreements, but they weren't specific. That was hardly surprising, as the trip was never supposed to be about substance. It was about spectacle.

For all the kisses and compliments at the highest levels in Baghdad, Ahmadinejad's visit was seen very differently at the street level. Ahmmad Fouzi, a 23-year-old from Baghdad who is in the antiquities business, gave a typical reaction.

"Each person has his own view, and a person who is benefiting from this visit would certainly defend it," he said. "But the Iraqi people, many of them, three-quarters or 99 percent of Iraqi people, do not like this Ahmadinejad visit."

He said that Iranian support of insurgents and militias in Iraq made Ahmadinejad an unwelcome guest.

Indeed, for many Iraqi Sunnis, the visit seems to provide further evidence of Iran's influence over Iraq's largely Shiite government. There were demonstrations across the country. In the Sunni stronghold of Fallujah, placards called the Iranian president a serial killer for his support of Shiite militias in Iraq that have targeted Sunnis.

In the Karada neighborhood of Baghdad, fliers warned Iraqis not to be naive about Ahmadinejad. Today a visit, one said, tomorrow they will take control.

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