BAGHDAD — Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad on Sunday became the first Iranian head of state to visit Iraq in three decades and immediately became the focus of demonstrations that underscored Iraq's sectarian split.
In Fallujah, Sunni Muslim protesters demonstrated against his visit, calling him the killer of Iraqi children. Iraq's Sunni vice president showed up late for a reception for Ahmadinejad hosted by Iraq's Kurdish president.
Meanwhile, Iraq's Shiite ruling elite, many of whom had been taken refuge during Saddam Hussein's time in Shiite Iran, listened to Ahmadinejad without need of translation into Arabic, clearly comfortable hearing his Farsi.
American officials stayed far away from the visiting Iranian delegation. At a joint press conference with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki, Ahmadinejad claimed that "Iraqis don't like Americans." Maliki didn't challenge the assertion.
Ahmadinejad's trip was a visible sign of what have been growing economic and cultural ties between the two countries since American-led forces toppled Saddam. Iranian economic investment is growing, especially in southern Iraq, millions of Iranians visit Iraq's holy cities of Najaf and Karbala on religious pilgrimages, and Iraqi officials frequently travel to Tehran and other Iranian cities. Iraq's most influential political party, the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq, was founded in Iran.
The visit also was the first by any regional leader since the end of Saddam's rule and while President Bush and British prime ministers also have visited, Ahmadinejad was the first leader to receive the full trappings of a state visit.
He was met at Baghdad International Airport by Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari and Maliki's national security advisor, Mowaffak al Rubaie. He was whisked from the airport in a black BMW to President Jalal Talabani's compound, where a marching band welcomed him with the Iranian and Iraqi national anthems and a series of other marches, including an American one, Colonel Boogie.
Iraqi officials lined up to welcome the visiting president, but the Sunni vice-president, Tarik al Hashemi, was noticeably absent. He appeared about 50 minutes after Ahmadinejad arrived. There was no explanation for his delayed arrival.
No U.S. soldiers were in sight near Talabani's home and security was provided by Kurdish soldiers known as the peshmerga.
At an afternoon press conference with Maliki, Ahmadinejad dismissed longstanding U.S. accusations that Iran trains, funds and arms Shiite militias in hopes of destabilizing Iraq.
"You can tell Mr. Bush that accusing others will increase the problems for America in the region and will not solve the problem," he said. "The Americans have to accept the facts of the region. Iraqi people do not like Americans."
When asked if Iran and Iraq trusted one another, Ahmadinejad took another swipe at the Americans.
"If you look to the two peoples, Iranian and Iraqi, we can see they have a joint history, culture and geography," he said. "If they don't trust each other in spite of all these characteristics in common can they trust countries which are 12,000 kilometers away from Iraq and Iran?"
Maliki welcomed Ahmadinejad and called his visit "the first visit of its kind." He said the visit would "deepen" the relationship between the two nations.
"We believe that there is not stability except through understanding and discussion, " he said.
Iran has long touted its historical, geographic and cultural connection to Iraq as more powerful than the tens of thousands of U.S. troops here. Iranian officials claim that the continued U.S. military presence is the real destabilizing factor.
But Sunni Muslims bristled at Ahmadinejad's visit. In downtown Fallujah, which at one time was the center of the Sunni-dominated insurgency, about 400 people held signs and chanted anti-Iran slogans.
"The teacher's association protest the visit of the Iranian president, killer of Iraqi children," one sign read. Said another, "We demand the Iranian president stop supporting the militias which are killing the Iraqi people." Others accused the group of supporting the Sunni insurgent group, Al Qaida and another accused Iran of stealing Iraqi oil.
Last week, 500 people demonstrated against the visit in Diyala province, and Arab leaders in Kirkuk rejected the visit in a written statement.
(Special Correspondent Mahdi al Dulaimy contributed to this report from Fallujah.)
McClatchy Newspapers 2008