March 3, 2008 / 8:44 AM / 11 years ago

Ahmadinejad to oversee series of Iran-Iraq deals

By Wisam Mohammed

BAGHDAD, March 3 (Reuters) - Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad will oversee the signing of agreements to strengthen economic ties with Iraq on Monday on the second day of his landmark trip to Baghdad.

Iraqi officials said up to 10 bilateral accords would be signed as Ahmadinejad completed the first visit by an Iranian president to Iraq since Saddam Hussein launched a ruinous eight-year war on Iran in 1980 in which 1 million people died.

"Agreements will be signed today on behalf of the ministries of transport, including railways and freight and sea transport," said Shirwan al Waeli, Iraq’s minister of national security.

Ahmadinejad said on Sunday his visit, the first by a leader from the region since the U.S.-led invasion in 2003, opened a new chapter in relations between Iran and Iraq. This year is the 20th anniversary of the Iran-Iraq war.

Analysts said his visit shows Iran’s growing influence in the region and his presence in Baghdad as a guest of the Iraqi government undercuts Washington’s assertions that Tehran is fuelling violence with support for local Shi’ite militias.

Ahmadinejad took a swipe on Sunday at the United States, which has more than 150,000 troops in Iraq, saying it was responsible for a rise in terrorism in the region.

"Six years ago there were none of these terrorists. When the others stepped foot in this country and region we find a foothold for the terrorists," he told reporters after meeting Shi’ite political leader Abdul-Aziz al-Hakim.

Ahmadinejad, known for his provocative rhetoric, has been restrained during the visit, offering only mild criticism of the United States, possibly to avoid embarrassing his Iraqi hosts.

Iraqis themselves had mixed feelings about the Iranian president’s visit.

Many Sunni Arabs, who were dominant under Saddam Hussein, resent the Shi’ite rise to power in Iraq and believe Iran controls Iraqi Shi’ite leaders and is arming Shi’ite militants to attack them.

In the mainly Sunni Arab Falluja west of Baghdad, protesters marched through the city on Sunday waving banners saying "Get your non-Arab hands off Iraq".

Both Iran and Iraq are run by Shi’ite majorities, but while Iraq is largely Arab, Iran is mainly Persian.

But In the holy city of Najaf, historically the centre of Shi’ite learning, Ahmadinejad’s trip was welcomed.

"Ahmadinejad’s visit to Iraq is great and benefits the nation of Iraq as it strengthens the relations between the two countries," said cloth merchant Mohammed Nasy, 27.

(Writing by Michael Holden, editing by Samia Nakhoul)

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