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    Middle East
     Jul 19, 2005
Iraq goes courting in Iran
By Safa Haeri

PARIS - Iraqi Prime Minister Ibrahim Jaafari has taken the first important steps in the sensitive process of normalizing relations with former foe and rival Iran. His three-day official visit to Tehran, which ended on Monday, was "very important and significant", say senior Iranian analysts.

Jaafari arrived in Tehran on Saturday, soon after his defense minister visited, taking with him a large political and economic delegation primed to rebuild ties between the two Shi'ite-dominated countries, which fought an eight-year war in the 1980s.

The visit comes three weeks after the surprise victory of Mahmud Ahmadinejad in Iran's presidential elections and less than a month before the new leader takes over from President Mohammad Khatami. "The timing of this visit, delayed twice because of the Iranian presidential elections, is very important. It has certainly been approved and even encouraged by Washington," observed Alireza Nourizadeh, a veteran Iranian journalist based in London, speaking to Radio Farda (Tomorrow) the Persian service of Radio Free Europe-Radio Liberty.

Jaafari was the first foreign high-ranking personality to meet the incoming Iranian president, described as a "fundamentalist" close to Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, the leader of the Islamic republic, and the Americans will expect that Jaafari will be able to brief them on any hints that might have been dropped on Iran's policies regarding the US, Iraq and the Middle East peace process.

A former Revolutionary Guards officer, Ahmadinejad fought against the Iraqis during the war.

Iraqi Defense Minister Saadun al-Dulaimi, in sharp contrast to his predecessor, who had tagged Iran "Iraq's number one enemy" and accused the ruling Iranian ayatollahs of "killing democracy [in Iraq] by supporting terrorists", said in Tehran, "I have come to Iran to ask forgiveness for what Saddam Hussein has done to Iranians. I have come to close a painful page and start a new one," referring to the war that killed more than a million people and cost billions of dollars in devastation.

Dulaimi signed several security and anti-terrorist agreements with his Iranian counterpart, Ali Shamkhani, who promised to help Iraq fight its insurgency and offered defense and military cooperation, as well as forming and training Iraqi police and armed forces, a project denied later by Iraqi Interior Minister Bayan Jaber.

If sincere, Tehran could help both Iraqi and US-led forces to better fight the largely Sunni-based insurgency in Iraq by engaging the 15,000 to 20,000 al-Badr Brigade, the military wing of the Shi'ite Supreme Assembly of Islamic Revolution of Iraq, formed, trained and equipped by the Iranian Revolutionary Guards to oppose Saddam.

On the thorny issue of the presence in Iraq of some 3,000 members of the outlawed Mujahideen-e-Khalq (MKO) , an Iranian exile group, Dulaimi said they could stay in Iraq as political refugees, adding clearly that no anti-Iranian actions on their part would be tolerated.

For more than 20 years, Iran provided shelter to millions of Iraqi Shi'ites and Kurds oppressed by Saddam, while the Iraqi dictator used the MKO, which he largely financed and equipped, to fight Iran, as well as Kuwait, which he occupied briefly in 1990 before being booted out by an international force led by the US.

Indeed, the visiting Iraqi premier lived in Iran for 10 years after Saddam banned all Shi'ite parties, including the Da'wa Party, to which Jaafari belonged.

"There are some important facts that bind Iran and Iraq. Iran gave safe haven to thousands of Iraqis during Saddam's bloody purges in southern and northern Iraq. Many Iraqis still live in Iran. The cultural and religious affinities between the two nations are very significant and can never be underestimated," the English-language Tehran Times, close to the Foreign Affairs Ministry, commented.

The countries resumed diplomatic relations in September last year, with Iran being one of the first nations to officially recognize the American-installed Iraqi interim government of Iyad Allawi.

Iranian Foreign Affairs Minister Kamal Kharazi earlier visited Baghdad in an effort to bury the hatchet, without achieving concrete results on most pending issues, such as the exchange of prisoners of war, and especially war damages claimed by Tehran, estimated at billions of dollars, and the signing of a formal peace treaty replacing the present ceasefire decided by the United Nations Security Council in 1989.

However, Iranian observers do not expect too much movement on these issues as Jaafari would rather wait for Ahmadinejad to officially take over.

In the past, Baghdad never responded to Iran's claims for war damages, and in return Tehran has never admitted that Saddam sent more than 200 civilian and military planes to Iran, including Boeing airliners, MiG fighters and Sukhoi bombers, as well as some French Mirages, to escape US-led attacks in 1991.

Khatami expressed the hope that Jaafari's visit would become a "landmark" in Tehran-Baghdad relations, "allowing repair and compensation for the great damages and pain Saddam Hussein inflicted to Iranians", a veiled reference to Tehran's claims for war damages.

Rejecting this politely and diplomatically, Jaafari said he "fully understands" the injuries and damages the former Iraqi dictator caused to people of the region, but, he added, "Saddam was not the representative of the Iraqi nation and people."

Jaafari's visit coincided with a spate of attacks in Iraq, including the explosion on Sunday of a gas tanker by a suicide driver near a Shi'ite mosque in the city of Musayyib, 60 kilometers south of Baghdad. The explosion, in which at least 100 people died, increases fears of a religious war in ethnically and religiously divided Iraq.

The worsening security situation was expected to be a topic at the second meeting of interior ministers from Iraq's neighbors, plus Egypt, scheduled for Monday in Istanbul, Turkey.

Iran and Iraq on Sunday signed a memorandum of understanding, meant to open a $1 billion credit line that could boost the flow of Iran's exports to its neighbor, the Iranian Commerce Ministry said. "The credit will be used for the export of technical and engineering services, as well as other goods to Iraq," a ministry spokesman said.

Safa Haeri is a Paris-based Iranian journalist covering the Middle East and Central Asia.

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