Ahmadinejad: U.S. Brought Terrorism to Mideast

Sunday, 02 Mar 2008 06:03 PM

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BAGHDAD -- Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad accused the US on Sunday of bringing terrorism to the Middle East as he made a historic trip to Iraq which he said opened "a new page" in ties between the neighbours.

Hitting back at charges by US President George W. Bush that it was Iran that was destablising its western neighbour, Ahmadinejad blamed what it regards as a continuing US occupation and stressed Shiite Iran's good relations with Iraq's Shiite majority which leads the post-invasion government.

"Six years ago there was no terrorism in our region. As soon as strangers (the Americans) put their foot in the region, the terrorists came here," Ahmadinejad said.

"The Americans should change their viewpoint concerning these issues," he added in response to the accusations from the White House.

Speaking at his Texas ranch on Saturday Bush, had called on Iran to "quit sending in sophisticated equipment that's killing our citizens."

But the Iranian president insisted in a joint news conference with Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki that anti-American sentiment in Iraq was not Iran's fault as Iraq "does not want the US."

Ahmadinejad was on the first visit by an Iranian president to Iraq since the two neighbours lost an estimated one million people in a devastating 1980-1988 war during the iron-fisted regime of Saddam Hussein.

At a joint news conference with his Iraqi counterpart Jalal Talabani, he hailed a "new page" in relations.

"We have the same understanding of things and the two parties are determined to strengthen their political, economic and cultural cooperation," he said.

Ahmadinejad acknowledged that Iraqis were going through "tough" times -- "but as we know, the Iraqi people will overcome the situation and the Iraq of tomorrow will be a powerful, developed and unique Iraq."

After seeing Talabani, Ahmadinejad drove to Baghdad's heavily fortified Green Zone to meet Maliki in his office, located just two kilometres (one mile) from the US embassy.

Maliki said the visit of Ahmadinejad was a "positive" signal to other regional states that they should develop ties with the new Iraq.

"There was a high level of trust and I frankly say that the recent Iranian position towards Iraq is extremely helpful," Maliki said in the news conference with Ahmadinejad.

"The visit will encourage and motivate neighbouring countries to visit Iraq."

Ahmadinejad said he understood the concerns about Kurdish rebels that had motivated Iraq's most populous neighbour Turkey to send troops across the border last month but added that Iraq's sovereignty needed to be respected.

"Terrorism is presently damaging everybody," said the Iranian president whose own country is facing an insurgency by a rebel group with close links to the Kurdistan Workers' Party (PKK) that has been fighting the Turkish army for the past 24 years.

"Everybody should fight terrorism. We have to have coordination between the governments of Turkey, Iran and Iraq," he said.

But he stressed that any action taken had to be in a way "that the sovereignty of Iraq is respected".

Iran's relations with Iraq have drastically improved under the new Shiite-led government installed after the US-led invasion of 2003 with many leading politicians being former rebels who found sanctuary in Iran under the old regime.

Trade between the two neighbours is brisk. Iran is also building a major airport to service the millions of pilgrims who visit the Shiite shrines of Najaf and Karbala in Iraq.

But not all Iraqis expressed happiness at Ahmadinejad's visit. "No! No, to Iranian intervention!" chanted a crowd of around 250 in the northern oil city of Kirkuk.

"As Iraqis, we can't let the Iranians and US settle their scores on Iraqi soil," one protester said.

Iran's relations with the United States remain frosty, 28 years after the two countries broke off diplomatic relations in the wake of the 1979 Islamic revolution.

The US military has 14 Iranians in its custody in Iraq and says it has proof that Tehran supplies insurgents with armour-piercing explosives and rockets.

The two countries are also at odds over Iran's nuclear programme, which the United States suspects is a cover for an atomic weapons drive, something Iran denies.

Ahmadinejad was welcomed by Talabani with the traditional pomp and ceremony of a red-carpet greeting and honour guard as a military band played their national anthems.

Outside the Talabani compound, US troops who normally man key crossroads near the residence were nowhere to be seen. Kurdish peshmerga militiamen from the Iraqi presidential guard provided security instead.

Copyright 2008 AFP.

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