Iran's Foreign Minister in Iraq to Cement Ties

By Sinan Salaheddin | January 5, 2011 | 6:29 AM EST

Baghdad (AP) - Iran's new foreign minister is pushing to cement ties with neighboring Iraq at a time when American troops are preparing to go home and Tehran's influence is expected to rise.

Officials from around the Middle East have been streaming into Iraq since the new Shiite-led government was sworn in last month, nine months after an inconclusive election that led to prolonged political wrangling. Iranian Foreign Minister Ali Akbar Salehi's visit came a few days after Jordan and Egypt sent senior delegations.

Iraq's mainly Sunni neighbors are racing to try to gain more influence in Iraq, partly to counter Iran's influence. Ties between Iran and Iraq, both Shiite-dominated countries, were troubled before the 2003 U.S.-led invasion toppled Saddam Hussein's Sunni minority-led government.

Iran and Iraq fought a brutal eight-year war in the 1980s that left hundreds of thousands dead on both sides. But relations improved dramatically with the overthrow of Saddam's regime and the installation of a Shiite-dominated government. Iran is one of Iraq's largest trading partners, and millions of Iranian Shiite pilgrims travel to Iraq yearly.

At a joint press conference with his Iraqi counterpart, Salehi said his country was looking forward to boosting relations in all fields with the new Iraqi government.

Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari said the two sides discussed "in detail" an Iranian opposition group that Iran wants expelled from Iraq. Zebari's comments suggested Iraq may finally be ready to tackle an issue that has long angered Iran.

"Our constitution doesn't allow any armed group on our land that launches attacks and assaults against neighboring countries," Zebari said. "We are determined to deal with this issue and there were some good suggestions to put an end to it," he added, without elaborating.

The group -- known as the Mujahedeen-e-Khalq -- which fought alongside Saddam during his 1980s war with Iran, has long infuriated Iraq's Shiite-led government for launching hit-and-run attacks inside Iran. Many of the group's supporters live in a camp north of Baghdad that used to be protected by American troops but is now encircled by Iraqi forces.

Ties between Iraq and its mostly Sunni Arab neighbors were damaged after the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq.

Most Arab governments sent diplomats here following Saddam's fall in 2003 but did not cultivate high-level relations to avoid the appearance of endorsing the U.S. military occupation of an Arab country.

But as of early 2006, many softened their stance under strong U.S. pressure, reopened their embassies and started to bolster trade and political relations.

About 50,000 American troops remain in Iraq and are mainly focused on assisting and training Iraqi security forces before their scheduled pullout from the country by the end of this year.

In other news, police said a roadside bomb hit a bus Wednesday carrying Iranian pilgrims to the northern city of Samarra, 60 miles (95 kilometers) north of Baghdad, wounding four people. The police spoke on condition of anonymity because they were not authorized to speak to the media.

Sunni militants intent on toppling Iraq's Shiite-led government have often targeted Iranian pilgrims visiting Iraqi religious shrines.