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Rouhani seeks to boost ties on first visit to Baghdad

Published:Tuesday | March 12, 2019 | 12:00 AM
Iraqi President Barham Salih (right), shakes hands with visiting Iranian President Hassan Rouhani, at Salam Palace in Baghdad, Iraq, yesterday. (AP)
Iraqi President Barham Salih (centre) walks with visiting Iranian President Hassan Rouhani before their meeting at Salam Palace in Baghdad, Iraq, yesterday. Rouhani is visiting Iraq, seeking to boost ties between the two neighbouring states and possibly secure Iraq’s help in bypassing US sanctions the Trump administration reimposed last year.
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BAGHDAD (AP):

Iranian President Hassan Rouhani was in Baghdad yesterday, making his first official visit to the nation that Tehran once fought a bloody war against and later backed in the battle with the Islamic State group.

Since Rouhani’s election in 2013, Iraq has relied on Iranian ­paramilitary support to fight IS, ­following the militant group’s capture of the Iraqi city of Mosul and other territory in both Iraq and Syria.

Now with the militants facing a final territorial defeat in the Syrian village of Baghouz, Iran is looking for Iraq’s continued support as it faces a maximalist pressure campaign by President Donald Trump after his decision to withdraw America from Tehran’s nuclear deal with world powers.

Rouhani, who is accompanied on the three-day visit by a high-ranking political and economic delegation, was received by an honour guard on landing in Baghdad, where he was welcomed by Iraqi Foreign Minister Mohammed Ali Al-Hakim.

Rouhani then visited the shrine of Imam Kadhim, the seventh of 12 clerics revered by Shiites worldwide. Rouhani, a Shiite cleric himself, paused to reach out and touch the gate surrounding the imam’s tomb.

REGIONAL STABILITY

He then met President Barham Salih and spoke to journalists, telling them that a “stable Iraq will lead to stability in the entire region”.

“We want to be united countries, not against others, but attracting others to our unity,” Rouhani said.

For his part, Salih said that Baghdad’s central location made it crucial to resolving regional issues. He thanked Iran for its support during Iraq’s fight against IS.

“The victory that was achieved against IS group in Iraq was an important and huge victory but incomplete as the eradication of that sick, deviated line of thought and extremism requires more ­sustainable regional efforts and cooperation,” Salih said.

Rouhani was to later meet Prime Minister Abel Abdul-Mehdi. He plans on meeting with other ­politicians and Shiite leaders ­during his visit.

Rouhani’s visit underscores how much has changed since the 1980s, when Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein invaded Iran, sparking an eight-year war that killed an ­estimated one million people. After the 2003 United States-led invasion of Iraq toppled Saddam, Iran began a campaign of backing militants who targeted American forces in Iraq.

Tehran also made political ­connections with Iraq’s Shiite leaders, who had been persecuted by Saddam’s government. Iran’s former hard-line President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad became the first Iranian president to visit Iraq on a trip in 2008.

Iraq and Iran share a 1,400-­kilometer-long (870 miles) border. Trump made a snap December trip to Iraq and made comments that US forces should stay in Iraq to keep an eye on Iran, something dismissed by both Iran and Iraqi leaders, whom Trump did not meet on the visit.

Speaking at Tehran’s Mehrabad Airport before leaving for Iraq, Rouhani’s official website quoted him as saying that the trip’s goal was “deepening bilateral relations”.

“Relations between Iran and Iraq are special,” Rouhani was quoted as saying. “In the recent years, the people of Iran have passed a test with pride, and that is wherever the peoples of the region faced a problem and asked for the help of the Iranian nation and government, we rushed to help them.”

Rouhani, who had visited Iraq privately before becoming president, had planned an official visit in 2016, but it was cancelled over unspecified “executive” problems.

This time, Rouhani, who is on a second four-year-term, is ­particularly vulnerable because of the economic crisis assailing the Iranian rial, which has hurt ordinary Iranians and emboldened critics to openly call for the president’s ouster.

Tehran sees the US military presence at its doorstep in Iraq as a threat – one that could also undermine Iran’s influence over Baghdad.

Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif alluded to that on Sunday while in Baghdad, saying that any country that tries to interfere with the good Iran-Iraq relations would “be deprived of opportunities for itself”.

Iran also sees Iraq as a possible route to bypass US sanctions that Trump reimposed last year after pulling the US out of the 2015 nuclear deal.

Last year, Iran’s exports to Iraq amounted to nearly $9 billion. Tehran hopes to increase the roughly $13 billion volume in trade between the two neighbouring countries to $20 billion. Also, some five million religious tourists bring in nearly $5 billion a year as Iraqis and Iranians visit Shiite holy sites in the two countries.

“This visit seeks to send a message to the United States of America that Iran is still effective in Iraqi politics,” said Ali Fadlallah, an analyst in Iraq. “I think the visit (also) aims at settling the trade and economic relation. Iran wants to be partner in building up the ­infrastructure and the cities that were damaged by the war on terrorism.”