BAGHDAD (Reuters) – Pomp and ceremony greeted Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad on his arrival in Iraq on Sunday, the fanfare a stark contrast to the rushed and secretive visits of his bitter rival U.S. President George W. Bush.
Ahmadinejad held hands with Iraqi President Jalal Talabani as they walked down a red carpet to the tune of their countries’ national anthems, his visit the first by an Iranian president since the two neighbours fought a ruinous war in the 1980s.
His warm reception, in which he was hugged and kissed by Iraqi officials and presented with flowers by children, was Iraq’s first full state welcome for any leader since the U.S.-led invasion to topple Saddam Hussein in 2003.
His visit not only marks the cementing in ties between the neighbours, both run by Shi’ite majorities, but is seen as a show of support for the Iraqi government and an act of defiance against Iran’s longtime enemy, the United States, which has over 150,000 troops Iraq.
A line of senior Iraqi political leaders welcomed Ahmadinejad when he arrived at Talabani’s palatial home.
Bush has visited Iraq several times, his administration keen to reduce Iranian influence in the world’s top oil-exporting region.
But that goal been made harder by a reluctance from Iraq’s mainly Sunni Arab neighbours to send high-level diplomatic representation, or even to visit, despite U.S. encouragement.
“To Iraq’s neighbours, Ahmadinejad’s visit underlines that a non-Arab country has kept its embassies open since the fall of Saddam and its leader visits Iraq,” Iraqi Deputy Foreign Minister Labeed Abbawi told Reuters.
Many Arab diplomats have stayed away after a suicide car bomber attacked the Jordanian embassy in August 2003, killing 17 people. Militants have killed several other diplomats, including an Egyptian who had been sent to head Cairo’s mission in 2005.
“Not a single Arab country has an embassy in Iraq and not one of their leaders has visited, despite Iraq being an Arab country,” Abbawi said.
Several Arab nations have missions in Iraq, but none has ambassadors permanently in the country.
Ahmadinejad’s motorcade took Iraq’s notoriously dangerous airport road to Talabani’s palace at the start of his two-day visit, eschewing the helicopter trip usually taken by other visiting dignitaries as a security measure.
Bush’s last visit in September 2007 was to a desert airbase in Anbar province in Iraq’s west. He flew in unannounced to ward off insurgent attacks and the visit was over in a few hours.
Washington says Tehran supplies weapons and training to Shi’ite militias in Iraq, a charge Tehran denies. Analysts say Iran seeks a stable Iraq but at the same time wants to make life difficult for occupying U.S. forces.
Ahmadinejad, whose government is at odds with Washington over Tehran’s nuclear programme, has repeatedly called for U.S. forces to leave Iraq, blaming them for violence that has killed tens of thousands of Iraqis since the 2003 invasion.
U.S. officials in Baghdad say they will play no role in Ahmadinejad’s visit and that the U.S. military will not be involved in protecting him as he travels around unless it is asked for help.
When Ahmadinejad flew into Baghdad, his plane was controlled by Iraqi air controllers. But from his plane, Ahmadinejad would probably have seen the rows of American armoured vehicles and helicopters at a giant U.S. military base next to the airport.