BAGHDAD, March 2: Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad hailed a new chapter in ties with Iraq and took a jab at the United States over its policies in the Middle East during a landmark visit to Baghdad on Sunday.
Ahmadinejad is the first Iranian president to go to Iraq since military dictator Saddam Hussain launched a ruinous eight-year war on Iran in 1980 in which one million people died.
Pomp and ceremony greeted Ahmadinejad on his arrival, the fanfare a stark contrast to US President Bush’s rushed and secretive visits.
He went from Baghdad’s airport straight to a meeting with Iraqi President Jalal Talabani, who gave him a red-carpet welcome.
Ahmadinejad held hands with Talabani as they walked down a red carpet and a military band played their countries’ national anthems. It was Iraq’s first full state welcome for any leader since the US-led invasion.
Ahmadinejad’s motorcade drove from Baghdad’s airport to Talabani’s presidential palace. Visiting foreign dignitaries normally fly by helicopter to avoid the dangerous airport road.
’’We had very good talks that were friendly and brotherly. ... We have mutual understandings and views in all fields, and both sides plan to improve relations as much as possible,’’ Ahmadinejad said at a joint news conference with Talabani at the Iraqi president’s residence.
“A developed, powerful and united Iraq is to the advantage of everyone,” the Iranian leader said.
He rejected long-standing US accusations, repeated by President George W. Bush on Saturday, that Iran is arming Shia militias in Iraq who kill American soldiers.
“Bush cannot solve US problems in the region by accusing others. Gone is the era of accusations. The Iraqi nation does not want the US,” Ahmadinejad said through a translator as he spoke in Farsi.
The Iranian president has repeatedly called for US forces to leave Iraq, blaming them for sectarian violence which has left tens of thousands of Iraqis dead since 2003.
Talabani said Iraq would seek to oust the Iranian rebel Mujahadeen-i-Khalq (MEK) group, an old Iranian demand that was expected to be raised during Ahmadinejad’s visit.
“The presence of those terrorists is forbidden by the constitution and we are working to get rid of them,” Talabani said.
On the eve of Ahmadinejad’s visit, Bush accused him of ‘exporting terror’ to Iraq.
Speaking to reporters at his Texas ranch, the US president called on Iran to “quit sending in sophisticated equipment that’s killing our citizens.” Washington accuses Iran of supplying weapons to anti-US insurgents and training them, charges denied by Tehran.
After seeing Talabani, Ahmadinejad drove to Baghdad’s heavily fortified Green Zone to meet Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki in his office, just two kilometers from the US embassy. Maliki said the visit of Ahmadinejad was a positive signal to the other Arab countries.
“There was a high level of trust and I frankly say that the recent Iranian position towards Iraq is extremely helpful,” Maliki said at a joint news conference with Ahmadinejad.
The Iraqi prime minister emphasized that the Iranian leader’s visit was “an expression of the strong desire to enhance the relations and develop mutual interests after the past tensions during the dictatorship era.’’
“The visit will encourage and motivate neighbouring countries to visit Iraq,” Maliki said.
Ahmadinejad arrived in Iraq a day after Adm. Mike Mullen, Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, came to Baghdad on an unannounced visit with commanders and Iraqi officials.
Rear Adm. Gregory Smith said the Iraqi government would provide the principal security for Ahmadinejad and had the capacity and equipment to do so.
“Iraq has a responsibility as a neighbour to provide security,’’ he said during a press conference on Sunday in the
Green Zone, adding that the US hoped the visit “produces real and tangible results.’’