BAGHDAD,(Reuters) – Iran’s foreign minister flew in to Baghdad on Friday, a visit that turns attention on Tehran’s role in its U.S.-occupied neighbour hours after President George W. Bush admitted mistakes in his Iraq policy.
Though intended to meet Iraq’s new government, Manouchehr Mottaki’s trip may also be an opportunity for long-awaited contact with U.S. officials, Iraqi political sources said.
Mottaki will meet Iraq’s new prime minister, Nuri al-Maliki, less than a week after the Shi’ite Islamist formed his national unity government and pledged to curb the kind of violence that saw a bomb kill nine people in central Baghdad on Friday.
It is the second such visit from Iran since its U.S. enemy overthrew Saddam Hussein in 2003 and oversaw the election of an Iraqi Shi’ite Muslim leadership close to the Islamic Republic. Many found refuge in Iran during the Iran-Iraq war of the 1980s.
In Washington, Bush cited the Abu Ghraib prison abuse scandal as the “biggest mistake” and admitted that aggressive language from him about the Sunni insurgency — telling them to “bring it on” in 2003 — may have “sent the wrong message”.
Saddam’s once-dominant Sunni Arab minority is particularly suspicious of non-Arab Iran, and Sunni leaders accuse Tehran of fomenting unrest in Iraq to hobble U.S. military power in the region and of coveting oil reserves in Iraq’s Shi’ite south.
U.S. and British officials also accuse Iranian forces of providing bomb-making expertise and equipment to Iraqis, and analysts say Iran may indeed be using the Iraqi insurgency effectively to hold 130,000 U.S. troops at bay.
“The visit is a clear acknowledgment that Iran is interfering in Iraq’s affairs,” a senior Iraqi Sunni politician said on Friday, adding that some Iraqi politicians would openly urge Mottaki during his visit to rein in “Iranian meddling”.
Despite religious affinities, Iraq’s Shi’ite majority is not profoundly pro-Iranian and fought for Saddam in the 1980s.
Many leaders of Maliki’s United Alliance bloc have close ties with Tehran, though their jockeying for favour with various authorities in Iran is, along with their competition for control of Iraq’s oil, a source and reflection of factional in-fighting.
Washington has said it is open to talks about stabilising the country with Iran, with which the United States has no diplomatic relations. U.S. officials say they want Iraq to have good relations with Iran but reject any attempt to create a Shi’ite Islamic state in Iraq.
Among those Mottaki will meet is Abdul Aziz al-Hakim, leader of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), a powerful party founded in Iran to fight Saddam.
Hakim has no formal role in government but has offered to mediate between Washington and Tehran, which are fiercely at odds at the moment over Western accusations that Iran’s nuclear power programme is a cover for making weapons.
In April, Washington said talks with Iran were on hold as Iraq’s government was being formed.
Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad also said last month there was “no need” for such talks for the time being.
Several Iraqi political sources said they were not expecting Mottaki to bring specific messages from Tehran other than broad support for the government’s efforts to bring stability.