Ahmadinejad in Baghdad tells U.S. to quit Iraq

BAGHDAD Mon Mar 3, 2008 4:47pm EST

1 of 10. Iran's President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad attends a ceremony before leaving for Iraq, at the International Mehrabad Airport in Tehran March 2, 2008.

Credit: Reuters/Morteza Nikoubazl

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BAGHDAD (Reuters) - Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad used a historic visit to Baghdad on Monday to tell the United States to get out of Iraq and the region, saying its presence there had brought only destruction and division.

"We believe the powers that came over the seas traveling thousands of kilometers, these powers should leave this region and hand over the affairs to the people and governments in the region," Ahmadinejad said in translated remarks.

"People have not seen anything from the foreign presence in this region but more destruction and division," he added.

Ahmadinejad has repeatedly called on the United States, Iran's long-time enemy, to withdraw its more than 150,000 troops in Iraq, saying their presence is to blame for sectarian violence that has killed tens of thousands of Iraqis.

Ahmadinejad's two-day state visit to Iraq, the first by an Iranian leader since the neighbors fought a bitter eight-year war in the 1980s, highlighted the two countries' deepening ties at a time when U.S. influence in Iraq is seen as waning.

His warm reception by Shi'ite and Kurdish leaders and the pomp and ceremony that greeted him at the start of his well-publicized trip were in stark contrast to the rushed and secretive visits of U.S. President George W. Bush.

On a visit to the region in January, Bush tried to persuade moderate Arab allies to join a U.S. drive to isolate Iran over its nuclear program, which Iran says is for peaceful purposes but the United States says is for nuclear arms.

The Iranian president has sought to counter those efforts by trying to improve ties with Arab states in the region. Some saw Ahmadinejad's visit to Iraq as an attempt to upstage Bush.

The U.N. Security Council is expected to vote later on Monday on a U.S.-sponsored resolution calling for a third round of sanctions against Iran over its nuclear program.

FUNDING MILITIAS

Ahmadinejad on Monday again denied U.S. accusations that Iran is funding, arming and training Shi'ite militias in Iraq to undermine the Baghdad government.

"U.S. officials talk too much. For us these remarks are not important, because they talk based on false information. But we give them a friendly suggestion: We think accusing others cannot resolve U.S. problems in the region," he said.

He also said Iran wanted a "unified and independent Iraq", an assertion later challenged by U.S. embassy spokesman Philip Reeker.

"Iranian influence has led to instability and ... not stability," he said. "We have made it clear there is a need for Iran and Iraq to have a stable relationship. To have that, Iran needs to pursue a different strategy and not focus on rhetoric."

Despite his criticism on Monday of U.S. policies in the Middle East, Ahmadinejad, who often berates Washington in fiery speeches, was noticeably restrained during his trip, possibly in deference to his Iraqi hosts.

Analysts agree it is not in Iran's interests for Iraq to become a failed state but that it does not necessarily want a strong government that could pose a renewed threat. Up to 1 million lives were lost on both sides during the Iran-Iraq war.

Both Iran and Iraq are run by Shi'ite majorities and many of Iraq's Shi'ite leaders were in exile in Iran during Saddam Hussein's rule. The countries also have historical economic, political and cultural links.

Highlighting the warming ties between the two former arch- foes, Iran and Iraq signed seven agreements on customs, transportation links and improving cooperation in industrial development during Ahmadinejad's trip.

Ahmadinejad said efforts were also being made to resolve disputes over their border, a major factor in the 1980-88 war, and said both countries were working to determine the fate of soldiers who went missing during the conflict.

(Additional reporting by Tehran bureau and Mohammed Abbas,

Ahmed Rashee, Aseel Kami and Paul Tait in Baghdad; Writing by

Ross Colvin; Editing by Samia Nakhoul)

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