Ahmadinejad welcomed heartily in Iraq (Globe & Mail)

By Mark MacKinnon

BAGHDAD — It's a damning indication of how poorly things have gone for the United States during its five-year misadventure in Iraq that Mahmoud Ahmadinejad can drive in broad daylight though this war-ravaged city and spend the night at the presidential palace, but George W. Bush can't.

Mr. Ahmadinejad was greeted with lavish ceremony yesterday as he became the first Iranian President to visit Baghdad, a trip some said reflected Iran's great and growing power in Iraq and how severely the U.S. effort to remake Iraq into a Western-friendly democracy has gone awry.

Nearly 4,000 American soldiers have died since the war began in 2003, but Iraq's U.S.-backed government warmly welcomed Washington's No. 1 enemy with flowers and a band.

Apparently ignoring repeated U.S. charges that Iran is destabilizing his country, Iraqi President Jalal Talabani smiled broadly as he greeted Mr. Ahmadinejad outside his palace. Hailing a new era in ties between their states, the two men clasped hands and exchanged traditional kisses on the cheeks before walking together down a red carpet to review an honour guard as a military band played the two national anthems.
Despite the presence of 157,000 U.S. troops in Iraq, the visit left the impression that Iran's President now feels more comfortable in Baghdad than his U.S. counterpart does.

Unlike Mr. Bush's cloak-and-dagger visits here — fly-in trips to heavily guarded U.S. military bases that only last a few hours, often with no advance notice given to even the Iraqi government — Mr. Ahmadinejad's schedule was announced days earlier. He spent last night at Mr. Talabani's palace, across the Tigris River from the fortified Green Zone that houses the massive new U.S. embassy.

The United States severed ties with Iran in 1980 after Iranian students stormed the U.S. embassy in Tehran and took the staff hostage. Some former hostages have alleged that they remember Mr. Ahmadinejad as one of the hostage-takers, an accusation he denies. The Iranian leader did travel to the Green Zone to meet with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, however, a trip that would have necessitated him passing through a series of U.S.-controlled checkpoints.

The visit was seen as an effort to bolster Mr. al-Maliki's Shiite-dominated government. The pan-Arab as-Sharq al-Awsat newspaper reported yesterday that Iran was planning to help the Iraq administration with as much as $1-billion in interest-free loans that would go toward reconstruction projects to be carried out by Iranian firms. Iraqi officials confirmed yesterday that such an offer was discussed during the visit.
Mr. Ahmadinejad is to return to Tehran today.

Mr. Ahmadinejad brushed off U.S. accusations that Iran, which has a Shia majority, had been supporting Iraqi Shia militias in their deadly sectarian warfare against Iraq's Sunni minority. The Iranian leader said it was ridiculous for President Bush to be accusing others of interfering in Iraq when it was the United States that invaded the country in 2003, sparking the violence that has since taken tens of thousands, if not hundreds of thousands, of lives.

"We tell Mr. Bush that accusing others without evidence will increase the problems in the region and will not solve them," Mr. Ahmadinejad said at a press conference alongside Mr. al-Maliki. "The Americans have to understand the facts of the region. The Iraqi people do not like America."
Yesterday's visit was even more significant given the acrimonious history between Iran and Iraq, which fought a long and bloody war from 1980 to 1988 that left upwards of a million people dead and saw the first battlefield use of chemical weapons since the First World War. The United States backed Iraq, which was ruled at the time by Saddam Hussein, with weapons and money during the war.

The eventual U.S. decision to depose Mr. Hussein, a Sunni dictator, set off a chain reaction that has seen Iraq's once-oppressed Shia majority rise to power, setting off the brutal civil conflict between the country's Sunni and Shia communities.

Joost Hiltermann, a regional analyst with the Brussels-based International Crisis Group, noted that the groups now in power in Iraq, including key Shia and Kurdish political factions, are some of same groups that allied themselves with Tehran during the conflict while the United States was supporting Mr. Hussein. Many Iraqi Shia leaders lived in Iran during the war, while Mr. Talabani, a Sunni Kurd, speaks fluent Farsi.

"There was always a contradiction in American policy in Iraq," he said. "If you want to turn Iraq into a democracy, you're going to bring Iran's friends to power.

"If people in Washington are surprised [at the reception for Mr. Ahmadinejad] it's because they didn't understand what they were getting into."