Reaping The Benefits Of Bush's War
In a trip fraught with political meaning, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad arrived in Baghdad on Sunday for a two-day visit. Ahmadinejad's presence in Iraq was a major propaganda victory. Not only was it the first visit to Iraq by an Iranian leader since the Iranian Revolution in 1979, it was the first by any Middle East leader since the fall of Saddam Hussein's regime in 2003. The manner of Ahmadinejad's arrival was striking. Unlike President Bush's surprise appearances in Iraq, which are kept secret until the last minute, Ahmadinejad announced his trip weeks ago. While most foreign officials visiting Iraq normally travel by helicopter to avoid the dangerous airport highway, Ahmadinejad, after "descend[ing] the stairs of his presidential jet smiling and waving," traveled by motorcade to the home of Iraqi President Jalal Talibani. There, in "Iraq's first full state welcome for any leader since the US-led invasion," the two men "clasped hands and exchanged traditional kisses on the cheeks before walking together down a red carpet to review an honor guard as a military band played the two national anthems."
DRAWING BAGHDAD CLOSER TO TEHRAN: Ahmadinejad's visit underscores how Iran has emerged as the chief beneficiary of the 2003 U.S. invasion and removal of Saddam Hussein, against whom Iran fought a massively destructive war between 1980-88. Tehran maintains ties to most of Iraq's Shia political parties. The dominant Shia party -- the Supreme Iraqi Islamic Council (SIIC, formerly the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq, or SCIRI) -- was founded in Iran by Iraqi exiles in the early 1980s, with the support of Ayatollah Khomeini and the Iranian Revolutionary Guard. SIIC continues to enjoy a close relationship with Iran; the party's leader, Abd al-Aziz al-Hakim received a personal visit from Ahmadinejad. At a news conference, flanked by Hakim and Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, Ahmadinejad responded to U.S. accusations of Iranian intervention in Iraq by saying, "Iran has no need to intervene in Iraq. ... Isn't it ridiculous that those who have deployed 160,000 troops in Iraq accuse us of intervening there?" Ahmadinejad also directed criticisms at Bush: "You can tell Mr. Bush that accusing others will only complicate America's problems in the region. They must come to terms with the realities: the Iraqi people do not like Americans." Commenting on Iraq-Iran relations, Maliki said, "I think that the level of trust is very high. ... And I say frankly that the position Iran has taken recently was very helpful in bringing back security and stability."
A BLOW AGAINST ISOLATION AND REGIME CHANGE: Ahmadinejad's warm Baghdad welcome signifies a serious blow against U.S.-led efforts to isolate and sanction Iran for its lack of transparency on the nuclear issue. During the visit, "Tehran and Baghdad signed seven pacts in areas such as industry, trade and transport." Iran is funding construction of a large airport for the millions of pilgrims who visit the Shia holy cities of Najaf and Karbala, further cementing ties between the two countries' Shia communities. Iraqi officials confirmed discussion of an Iran offer of as much as "$1 billion in interest-free loans that would go toward reconstruction projects to be carried out by Iranian firms." The visit represents a major propaganda victory for Ahmadinejad going into the March 14 Iranian parliamentary elections. Despite the rejection of hundreds of reformist candidates, Ahmadinejad's conservative faction was seen as threatened because of Iran's troubled economy. In January, Ahmadinejad drew a rare public rebuke from Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Khamenei, because of his government's failure to provide heating gas to remote villages.
A BLOW AGAINST SECTARIAN RECONCILIATION: Ahmadinejad's visit also laid bare the divisions that continue to stymie political progress in Iraq. While he was embraced by his fellow Shiites as well as Kurdish leaders like Talibani, Sunni Vice President Tareq al-Hashemi did not meet with Ahmadinejad, and no Sunni politicians were present at the welcome ceremonies. The fact that Ahmadinejad is the first Middle East leader to visit Iraq since the 2003 invasion is not lost on Iraq's Sunni minority, who formerly ruled Iraq. Hundreds of Sunnis demonstrated against Ahmadinejad in Fallujah. Expressing the anger of many Iraqi Sunnis, Sunni cleric Abdul Kareem al-Samarai announced during a Friday sermon: "I have a message to the Arab leaders, where are you? Where are your ambassadors?" While several Arab states have missions in Iraq, none have sent permanent ambassadors. The closer relations between Tehran and Baghdad threaten to further alienate members of the Sunni tribal "Awakening" from the central government. Sheikh Jabbar al-Fahdawi, one of the tribal leaders, condemned Ahmadinejad's visit, declaring, "Iran is the No. 1 enemy of Iraq. I would have never let a man like this enter Iraq." Another tribal leader, Salman Abdullah Al-Hamad, also expressed outrage. "How can we tolerate this? ... Today we live under the regime of the clerics. The Iranian revolution has been exported to Iraq." While Sunni tribal groups have been credited with helping to reduce violence, they have expressed deep dissatisfaction with what they see as the Baghdad government's unwillingness to accommodate them. American officials have tried to present the Awakenings phenomenon as a revolt against al Qaeda, but many Sunni militiamen "say they joined partly to get support from the Americans so they can prepare to resist Iranian efforts to dominate Iraq.