BAGHDAD — President Bush's leading nemesis in the Middle East, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, begins a two-day state visit to Iraq on Sunday, attempting to highlight Iran's role as the region's major power and upstage Bush and the U.S. military presence.
Unlike Bush, who's traveled to Iraq twice unannounced and on his last visit never left an American base in Anbar province, Ahmadinejad not only announced his trip in advance but also is planning to visit two major Shiite Muslim holy sites, Karbala and Najaf, at the end of a mammoth Shiite pilgrimage that was marred by a suicide bombing.
The out-of-town visits raise security questions in the face of the continuing threat from Sunni Islamist extremists. But the images of Ahmadinejad at sacred sites are certain to impress Iranians, who in two weeks will vote in parliamentary elections at a time when soaring oil prices haven't eased Iran's economic troubles.
Ahmadinejad may have had his domestic audience in mind when he claimed Thursday at a meeting with the families of those killed in the eight-year Iran-Iraq war that Iran is the "number one power in the world."
"Today the name of Iran means a firm punch in the teeth of the powerful, and it puts them in their place," he said in his televised speech. "Today the message of your revolution is being heard in South America, East Asia, in the heart of Europe and even in the United States itself."
Rhetoric aside, it's a historic trip, the first by an Iranian leader since the Islamic revolution in 1979 and the first time that a Middle Eastern head of state has accepted an invitation by the new, U.S.-backed regime. The visit will demonstrate, as well, that despite many disputes with the United States over Iran's nuclear program and its support of militant Islamic groups in many places, Persian Iran can't be isolated from Arab and Kurdish Iraq.
"The Iranians are trying to make it clear to the U.S. and the Arab world that they are a force in the region," said Karim Sadjadpour, an associate at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, in Washington. "What the Iranians like to say is that the U.S. has hard power in Iraq — they have tens of thousands of soldiers and artillery — but Iran has soft power. No matter how many soldiers the U.S. has, they're never going to have the cultural affinity and popular affinity that the Iranians have in Iraq."
With Turkish forces fighting in Iraq with U.S. acquiescence and intelligence support, and other Iraqi neighbors accused of allowing suicide bombers to cross their borders, Iran can take credit for some of the advances in Iraqi security in the past year. These include a reduction in Shiite militia activity and a freeze on organized violence by the Mahdi Army militia, headed by radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al Sadr.
"Regardless what the United States says, this underscores Iran's value to Iraq," said Vali Nasr, a professor of international politics at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy in Massachusetts and adjunct senior fellow for the Middle East at the Council on Foreign Relations, a research center. "It's a time that Iraq is being invaded by its neighbor and Iran wants to point out to the United States, it supports the same government as them."
During his visit, Ahmadinejad will receive a formal ceremonial welcome — which Bush thus far hasn't had — and will talk with Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki and President Jalal Talabani. In addition to visiting Najaf and Karbala, he requested a trip to Samara — a far more dangerous trip into hostile Sunni territory, where the destruction of a Shiite shrine helped spark sectarian warfare — but his hosts turned that down.
The most substantive aspect of the visit is expected to be economic cooperation between the nations, said Hoshyar Zebari, the Iraqi foreign minister.
"This is the first leader from an Islamic country to visit Iraq after the regime change," Zebari said. "The visit will be noticed by the world very carefully and it will embarrass some other countries," a reference to Arab heads of state, who've accepted no Iraqi invitations for official visits.
Iranian Ambassador Hassan Kazemi Qomi portrayed Ahmadinejad's visit as "evidence of the strong political will by Iran to support this government and Iraq." Ahmadinejad is the first top foreign official to be "officially invited and officially received by the Iraqi government."
Qomi implied that Bush's two visits weren't by official invitation. Iran long has called for the full restoration of Iraq's sovereignty and a withdrawal of American troops.
"This is not a visit of one or two hours and then after he (Ahmadinejad) leaves the country there will be an announcement that he came to Iraq," he said, referring to Bush's surprise visits. "The visit will have a great impact on strengthening the relationship between the two countries."