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Former Iranian President Visits Iraq, Holds Talks With Leaders

HAMID AHMED   03/ 2/09 04:23 PM ET   AP


BAGHDAD — One of Iran's most powerful political and religious figures _ former President Hashemi Rafsanjani _ promised Monday to assist in Iraq's reconstruction after nearly six years of war that has involved Shiite militias with suspected links to Tehran.

"We hope the era of conflict and hardships for Iraq is coming to an end," Rafsanjani told reporters in his first visit to Iraq since Iran's 1979 Islamic Revolution.

Iran, a predominantly Shiite country, has close ties with Iraq's Shiite-led government and seeks to expand its commercial links as Iraq looks ahead to projects to rebuild roads and core services such as electrical networks and sewers.

Rafsanjani's visit came three days after President Barack Obama announced that the U.S. military would end its combat mission in Iraq in August 2010 but leave up to 50,000 soldiers in support roles until the end of 2011.

Iran claims Washington may try to exert influence over Iraq even after its troops are gone to maintain pressure on Iran's doorstep. Rafsanjani's visit also will be closely watched for any signals that Tehran may be willing to hold talks with the U.S.

American officials have accused Iran of aiding Shiite militants who have attacked U.S. forces. Tehran has denied the charges.

In another development, an Iraqi judge handed down death sentences for three former officials in Saddam Hussein's regime for slayings and abuses inflicted on Shiites a decade ago. The defendants included Ali Hassan al-Majid, known as "Chemical Ali" for ordering poison gas attacks on Iraqi Kurds in the 1980s. This was his third death sentence for brutalities during Saddam's rule.

Also sentenced to death were Mahmoud Faizi al-Hazaa, a former intelligence official, and Aziz Saleh al-Numan, a top Baath Party official in the Baghdad region. Three other former Saddam officials received life sentences and two were acquitted, including former Foreign Minster Tariq Aziz, who faces other charges and remains in custody.

Rafsanjani, an influential Shiite ayatollah, was given a red carpet welcome by Iraqi President Jalal Talabani at Baghdad's airport.

Talabani said Iraqi authorities could benefit from Rafsanjani's "long experience" as a leader who helped rebuild Iran after its war with Iraq.

Under Saddam, Iraq fought a brutal war with Iran in 1980-88 that killed more than 1 million people. The current Shiite-led government in Baghdad has good relations with Iran, but Sunnis and others have questioned whether Tehran wields too much influence over some Shiite Iraqi politicians.

Rafsanjani was Iranian president in 1989-97 but was defeated in a presidential comeback bid in 2005 by hard-liner Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who is running for re-election in June. Rafsanjani is not expected to join the race.

The former president is conservative but also seen as pragmatic, often willing to cut deals with other factions. He leads a panel of clerics empowered to monitor Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, and eventually choose his successor. But he also carries wider clout as an elder statesman and through his family's business empire.

Last month, Rafsanjani told former German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder, who was visiting Iran, that Tehran was willing to hold talks with the United States on Iran's nuclear program if both sides are treated as equals.

Washington and its allies worry that Iran will use its uranium enrichment program to make weapons-grade material. Iran says it only seeks a peaceful nuclear program for electricity production.

In violence, two bombs killed at least four people in Shiite areas of Diyala province, an area north of Baghdad that remains an insurgent hot bed despite security gains.

The first attack was a roadside bomb targeting an Iraqi army patrol in Balad Ruz, killing two soldiers and wounding three, according to officials at the regional security headquarters.

A bicycle bomb left near a Shiite mosque later exploded in Khalis, 80 kilometers (50 miles) north of Baghdad, killing at least three worshippers and wounding more than 20, police said.

An American soldier died Monday of wounds suffered in combat north of Baghdad, the U.S. military said. The statement did not provided details about the type of injuries or the attack.

The death raised to at least 4,254 members of the U.S. military who have died in the Iraq war since it began in March 2003, according to an Associated Press count.


Associated Press writer Sameer N. Yacoub contributed to this report.


Filed by Jessica Gusman  |