Iran’s president began a historic visit here Sunday, decrying the presence of foreign troops and subtly criticizing American allies.
In meetings with Iraqi 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 appearances, Ahmadinejad conveyed a message of friendship and warm ties between Iran and Iraq, despite the presence of more than 150,000 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.”
Iran, the United States’ chief antagonist in the Middle East, and Iraq are both dominated by Shiite Muslim majorities. Iran hopes to solidify its gains in Iraq by weaving together the two country’s economies.
Ahmadinejad’s visit, scheduled to end today, was largely billed as a mission about business. According to Iraqi and Iranian officials, private discussions included the expansion of trade ties, creation of cross-border industrial zones, exchange of technical expertise, integration of banking systems and the launching of joint investment projects in the oil, electricity, transportation and heavy industry sectors.
Trade between the countries already totals $8 billion a year. Iran is now arranging a $1-billion loan to Iraq in goods and services provided through Iranian companies. Most of Ahmadinejad’s entourage consists of experts in economy and energy, rather than security, said Mohammed 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 were favored under Hussein.
The Kirkuk Iraqi Front, a Sunni group 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 impose sanctions on Iran for pursuing sensitive nuclear technology that can be used for a weapons program.
“Iran needs a window through which it can rise in the world,” said Amer Hassan Fayadh, a professor of political science at Baghdad University. “It finds in Iraq the best window through which it can appear [strong] to the world, especially at a time when it is looking to get out of crises and bottlenecks in its relationships with the international community.”
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. Iraqi people do not like America,” said Ahmadinejad, speaking at a news conference with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Maliki, who did not visibly react to the comment.
He blamed the United States 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. Not a single Arab country has a full ambassador to Iraq.
The visit was loaded with pomp and ceremony highlighting the historical significance of the event, far more formal than President Bush’s clandestine visits here. Iraqi martial bands blared as Ahmadinejad strode up a red carpet to the home of Iraqi President Jalal Talabani.
In a striking departure from other high-profile visitors to Iraq, Ahmadinejad did not use a helicopter to get around the city. Instead, his convoy traveled on roads, which were mostly sealed off and filled with security forces.
Iran and Iraq fought an eight-year war during the 1980s that left an estimated 1 million people dead or injured. But there was no sign of lingering animosity during the visit. Many of the Shiite leaders in the current government were dissidents during Hussein’s rule and took shelter in Iran.
At an appearance before dinner with Abdelaziz Hakim, the head of Iraq’s main Shiite political party, and other Shiite leaders, the Iraqi and Iranian entourages were virtually indistinguishable. All were middle-aged men sporting neatly trimmed facial hair and wearing dark suits and open-collar white or blue shirts, the uniform of Shiite Islamists in the Middle East.
U.S. troops, who usually provide protection for high-profile guests, were absent.
Times staff writers Tina Susman and Raheem Salman in Baghdad and special correspondent Ramin Mostaghim in Tehran contributed to this report.