BAGHDAD (AP) — President Bush’s last trip to Iraq was kept secret until he arrived at a U.S. military base. Eight hours later he left, after Iraq’s leaders traveled to meet him there.
In sharp contrast, President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad’s visit — the first ever by an Iranian leader to Iraq — was announced in advance. He plans to spend the night here, and Iranian TV will broadcast his departure ceremony live.
Once considered Iraq’s archenemy, Iran is now cozy with Baghdad’s Shiite-led government and eager to show off Tehran’s rising influence as debate rages in the U.S. over how quickly to leave.
Ahmadinejad was to arrive Sunday morning at Baghdad’s airport and head to Iraqi President Jalal Talabani’s headquarters, located right across the Tigris River from the mammoth new U.S. Embassy in the fortified Green Zone.
Ahmadinejad sought to reassure Iraqis ahead of the trip by disputing U.S. accusations that Iran is meddling in Iraqi affairs and fueling violence among Shiite militias.
‘‘Iran has no need to intervene in Iraq. It is friendly to all groups in Iraq. Isn’t it ridiculous that those who have deployed 160,000 troops in Iraq accuse us of intervening there?’’ the Iranian state-run news agency, IRNA, quoted Ahmadinejad as saying.
During the two-day visit, Ahmadinejad is scheduled to meet with Talabani and Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki — both of whom have made official visits to Iran since taking office.
The trip symbolically serves several purposes for Iran. Ahmadinejad wants to highlight Shiite-dominated Iran’s influence but at the same time show that Iran is not a bully, analysts say.
He also may be trying to bolster his support back home ahead of parliamentary elections later this month that are seen as referendum on the Iranian president. Ahmadinejad has come under criticism from all sides in Iran for spending too much time on anti-Western rhetoric and not enough on economic problems plaguing the country.
Jon Alterman, head of the Middle East program at Washington’s Center for Strategic and International Studies, said the visit sends a ‘‘clear message to Iraqis that the Iranian influence in the country is significant and enduring.’’