BAGHDAD (Reuters) - President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad has accepted an invitation to visit Baghdad, Iraq’s Foreign Ministry said on Wednesday, a landmark trip that would make him the first leader of Iran to visit its former foe.
Iran and Iraq fought an eight-year war in the 1980s in which hundreds of thousands were killed, but relations have improved since Saddam Hussein was ousted in the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003 and a Shi’ite Islamist-led government came to power.
“President Ahmadinejad has accepted an invitation from President (Jalal) Talabani to come to Iraq,” Iraqi deputy Foreign Minister Labeed Abawi told Reuters.
An aide to Ahmadinejad, who asked not to be identified, said: “We have heard about it but no date has been scheduled.”
Both Talabani and Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki have visited Shi’ite Iran, which some Middle East analysts say exerts greater influence in Iraq than the United States.
Ahmadinejad has accepted the invitation at a time of heightened tension between Iran and the United States, which said its warships were threatened by Iranian craft in the Strait of Hormuz earlier this month.
The two countries are also at odds over Tehran’s nuclear program and what Washington calls Iran’s “negative influence” in Iraq through its arming and training of Shi’ite militias. Iran denies this and says it is committed to peace in Iraq.
Iraq’s U.S.-backed government, still dependent on U.S. forces to protect its borders, has said it does not want to be caught in the middle of any dispute between the two.
The main Shi’ite political blocs in Iraq’s government have enjoyed close ties with Iran in the past and were based there during Saddam’s rule.
There has been tension over the U.S. military’s continued detention of several Iranians. U.S. forces say the Iranians pose a danger to Iraq’s security, but Tehran says they are diplomats or other innocents illegally held by the Americans.
U.S. and Iranian officials were to have held a fourth round of talks in Baghdad in mid-December on curbing violence in Iraq but the meeting was put off. No new date has been set, U.S. embassy spokeswoman Mirembe Nantongo said.
The U.S. military said at the weekend there had been a sharp drop in the number of Iranian weapons being used in Iraq but no let-up in Tehran’s training and financing of Iraq militias.
In 1980, a quarrel over the Shatt al-Arab waterway that forms the southern border between Iran and Iraq resulted in one of the deadliest conflicts in Middle East history, the eight-year Iran-Iraq war in which more than 1 million died.
Additional reporting by Tehran bureau, writing by Ross Colvin, editing by Tim Pearce