U.S. eyes Iranian president’s visit to Iraq

Unlike President George W. Bush’s fleeting visits to Iraq, Iran’s president is set to go to Baghdad this weekend amid much fanfare on a trip seen by some experts as undermining U.S. influence in the region.

President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s visit comes after an invitation from the Iraqi government and will be the first by an Iranian president to Baghdad since 1979.

Bush used his own trip to the region last month to cajole moderate Arab allies to join a U.S. drive to isolate Iran because of its nuclear program and what Washington sees as stoking violence in Iraq.

“President Ahmadinejad’s visit is aimed at stealing America’s thunder … the Iranians are masters of propaganda,” said Michael Rubin of the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative Washington think tank.

“It is his (Ahmadinejad’s) moment of triumph. It is his ‘Mission Accomplished’ moment,” Rubin said, referring to a visit by Bush to a U.S. aircraft carrier in May 2003, two months after the invasion of Iraq, in which he addressed troops under a banner saying “Mission Accomplished.”

Bush has never spent the night in Iraq and like his two previous visits, his most recent trip in September 2007, was kept secret until after his arrival.

The United States insists it does not view Ahmadinejad’s two-day trip, which begins on Sunday, as a provocative gesture, but has strongly urged Iraq, which fought an eight-year war with Iran in the 1980s, to use the visit to tell Tehran it must change its behavior.

“We very much would like to see Iran play a positive role in Iraq and obviously, there have been many questions raised by us and the Iraqis about whether their rhetoric of wanting to be good neighbors has actually been matched by their actions,” State Department spokesman Tom Casey said.

A senior Bush administration official said Ahmadinejad had always been an “extremely worrisome figure” and there were concerns he could cozy up too much to Iraq’s government.

‘ILLICIT MEDDLING’

“There is still significant evidence of Iran’s illicit meddling in Iraq … This has to stop,” said the official, who spoke on condition he was not identified.

“But it is important to remember that this is a sovereign Iraqi decision (to invite Ahmadinejad) and we have faith that the Iraqis will be able to deal with his visit.”

Iran expert Karim Sadjadpour said while Bush’s tour was aimed at uniting Arab countries against Iran, Ahmadinejad wanted to show through his high-profile trip to Baghdad that Tehran was a major player and could not be sidelined.

“The U.S. may have hard power in Iraq — they may have tanks and tens of thousands of soldiers and artillery — but Iran has soft power and has a lot of political and cultural influence,” said Sadjadpour of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, a Washington think tank.

Since the United States invaded Iraq in March 2003 and toppled President Saddam Hussein, Iran has been highly critical of the U.S. role, saying it has stirred up violence and made the region less stable.

Washington counters it is Shi’ite Iran that has fomented sectarian bloodshed in Iraq by arming Shi’ite groups. Iran denies the accusations and squarely blames the United States for the turmoil.

While Ahmadinejad hopes for political capital at home from the visit, especially ahead of mid-March parliamentary elections in Iran, analysts said he would not want the Shi’ite-led Iraqi government to be seen as a “lapdog” of Tehran.

“That will create more problems with the neighbors. He will want to show his strength but not be seen as threatening them,” said Jon Alterman of the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a Washington think tank.

The Iraq government is providing security for Ahmadinejad but U.S. officials said Washington obviously would be closely monitoring his movements and wanted to ensure his safety.

The U.S. ambassador to Iraq, Ryan Crocker, has met his Iranian counterpart several times to discuss Iraq security issues but the State Department said there were no plans for him to have any encounters with Ahmadinejad during the visit.
http://www.reuters.com/article/middleeastCrisis/idUSN29176682

(Editing by Bill Trott)