BAGHDAD (AP) – The Iranian foreign minister visited Iraq on Thursday to try and resolve rising tensions over the border between the two countries, officials said.
Iranian troops have been stationed near Iraq’s al-Fakkah oil field along the two countries’ disputed border since Dec. 17. Iraqis in several cities have held demonstrations demanding their government take action.
Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari said the two countries will begin three weeks of bilateral meetings aimed at resolving the dispute.
“We have agreed to normalize the border situation between the two countries and return to the situation as it was before,” Zebari said, at a joint press conference with Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki.
Zebari said Mottaki’s visit was an “indication that there is an honest desire to find solutions to the border dispute.” Mottaki said the Iranian leadership was “willing and determined to solve the border dispute.” Neither minister gave details on the makeup of the committees or how the standoff was likely to be resolved.
Both countries are now majority Shiite Muslim with Shiite-led governments and have been anxious to play down potential problems. But they fought a bloody war in the 1980s that was sparked in part by border tensions. Many Iraqis remain highly suspicious of the intentions of their volatile neighbor.
The two countries share 870 mile (1,400 kilometer)-long border.
The visit comes at a time when both governments are coming under increasing pressure at home and abroad. Iran is struggling to contain protests sparked by allegations of rigging in last summer’s elections and is being heavily criticized by the international community over its nuclear program.
Iraq’s government is trying to prove it is capable of ensuring the country’s security ahead of elections scheduled for March 7. The administration must also prove it has reined in some of the rampant corruption that frustrates both Iraqis and international allies alike. Thursday’s visit may also fuel suspicions of some Iraqi politicians that Iran is trying to influence the polls.
Iran has made no secret it would like to see Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki ally his party with the other major Shiite-led part after elections. Such a move would help consolidate Shiite political power in the region.