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Ahmadinejad heads to Iraq as Chairman of U.S. Joint Chiefs visits

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New York Times: Army and police checkpoints dotted the Iraqi capital on Saturday in preparation for a visit by President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of Iran, which will coincide with a visit by the chairman of the United States Joint Chiefs of Staff. The New York Times

By ALISSA J. RUBIN
Published: March 2, 2008

BAGHDAD — Army and police checkpoints dotted the Iraqi capital on Saturday in preparation for a visit by President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of Iran, which will coincide with a visit by the chairman of the United States Joint Chiefs of Staff.

Adm. Mike Mullen arrived in Baghdad on Saturday on an unannounced trip to meet with commanders and Iraqi officials before a series of briefings he is to give President Bush in April about the future of the war effort.

There were no plans for Admiral Mullen and Mr. Ahmadinejad, who is to arrive on Sunday, to cross paths, and the timing of their visits appeared to be coincidental.

The visits come as violence, which in December reached its lowest level in more than a year, has begun to rise. In Baghdad, suicide bombers at two pet markets in February took the lives of nearly 100 people, and in northern Iraq, violence in Nineveh Province, whose capital is Mosul, has risen since late last fall, driving up the overall rate of attacks in northern Iraq, which is now the highest in the country.

Still, the number of violent deaths is far lower than it was last year at this time, and sectarian violence, particularly that by Shiites aimed at Sunnis in Baghdad, has dropped precipitously.

The Iranian president’s trip is a historic one, the first since Iran and Iraq fought an eight-year war in the 1980s that left more than one million people dead.

Speaking in Tehran on Saturday, Mr. Ahmadinejad praised and jabbed at the United States. He said that discussions on security between the United States and Iran “have helped stabilize conditions in Iraq a great deal.” However, he also accused the United States of sowing dissent between Iraq and Iran.

American officials charge Iran with meddling in Iraq by facilitating the importing of powerful weapons into the country and training Iraqis to set the armor-piercing roadside bombs known as explosively formed penetrators.

Speaking to reporters in Crawford, Tex., on Saturday, President Bush did not criticize the Iraqis for inviting Mr. Ahmadinejad, but said Iraq needed to send a clear message to Iran. “And the message needs to be, quit sending in sophisticated equipment that’s killing our citizens,” Mr. Bush said.

Back in Tehran, Mr. Ahmadinejad rejected the accusation. “It is the American practice to present others as guilty whenever they are defeated,” he said. “Is it not funny that those with 160,000 forces in Iraq accuse us of interference?”

The visit appears to be an Iranian effort to show its support for the Iraqi government of Prime Minister Nuri Kamal al-Maliki. Both countries are run by Shiite majorities. However, Iran is overwhelmingly Persian, while Iraq’s Shiites are Arabs. Furthermore, Iraq is a more heterogenous state. It has a significant Sunni minority as well as ethnic Kurds, Turkmen and other groups.

Mr. Ahmadinejad’s intensive security is to include more than 1,000 highly trained pesh merga guards and as many as 30,000 Iraqi soldiers, a contingent so large it is widely expected to immobilize a large swath of Baghdad.

In Diyala Province, still one of the most violent areas, American forces were detaining a man believed to be in charge of a cell that recruited women to carry out suicide-vest bombings, the military said Saturday in a statement.

The cell leader planned to use his wife and another woman to carry out his next attack, the statement said. Maj. Daniel J. Meyers, a spokesman for American forces in northern Iraq, said they captured the man after receiving a “high level of intelligence.”

Women are being used more frequently as bombers by Al Qaeda in Mesopotamia, a homegrown Sunni Arab extremist group that American intelligence agencies have concluded is foreign led.

Women have carried out six attacks or attempted attacks so far this year, according to the United States military. The bombers of the Baghdad pet markets were two women with a history of psychiatric treatment.

Reporting was contributed by Thom Shanker and Balen Y. Younis from Baghdad, Nazila Fathi from Tehran, and Iraqi employees of The New York Times from Diyala and Iraqi Kurdistan.

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