AFP: Iran’s foreign minister courted top clerics in Najaf, the Iraqi religious heartland, on Thursday, the second day of a visit to Iraq aimed at boosting ties between the Shiite-majority neighbours.
By Hassan Abdul Zahra
NAJAF, Iraq (AFP) — Iran’s foreign minister courted top clerics in Najaf, the Iraqi religious heartland, on Thursday, the second day of a visit to Iraq aimed at boosting ties between the Shiite-majority neighbours.
“I came carrying a letter from the Iranian leadership to the religious authorities in Najaf,” Ali Akbar Salehi told a news conference in the central Iraq Shiite shrine city.
“I had a good meeting with (top Iraqi Shiite cleric) Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, and I also just finished a meeting with Grand Ayatollah Mohammed Said al-Hakim,” Salehi said.
“And I will meet Grand Ayatollah Bashir al-Najafi and Grand Ayatollah Ishaq al-Fayad in order to give them the message from the Islamic republic,” he said, referring to other senior Shiite clerics.
The message “said that the Islamic republic supports the new Iraqi government, and will build relations with Iraq based on non-intervention in its internal affairs, and according to the interests between the two countries,” Salehi said.
“We support security, services and rebuilding in Iraq, and we will stand by Iraq until it gets over this distress,” he added.
The United States has in the past accused Iran of backing various militias within Iraq.
An April 2009 US diplomatic cable published in November by whistleblower website WikiLeaks said the Iranian Revolutionary Guards’ elite Quds Force was “active in Iraq, conducting traditional espionage and supporting violent extremists as well as supporting both legitimate and malign Iranian economic and cultural outreach.”
Brigadier General Jeffrey Buchanan, the spokesman for US forces in Iraq, told AFP last week that “at least certain elements of Iran have had what I would call a destructive relationship with what’s been going on in Iraq.”
But he added, “Iran and Iraq share a tremendously long border. It’s important for them to have a relationship.”
“Our hope is that it’s a constructive rather than a destructive relationship,” he said.
Salehi arrived in Iraq on Wednesday and met with Prime Minister Nuri al-Malik and Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari. He did not indicate if he would meet with radical cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, who returned to Najaf on Wednesday after four years of self-imposed Iran-based exile.
After their meeting on Wednesday, Zebari told a news conference that Salehi had met with Maliki and that one of the issues discussed was the People’s Mujahedeen of Iran (PMOI), an Iranian opposition group based at Camp Ashraf in Iraq.
“Our constitution doesn’t allow any organisation to be on our land and attack our neighbors, and we are committed to that,” Zebari said, without providing details on the talks.
PMOI forces based in Iraq fought against Iran during the 1980-1988 Iran-Iraq war and were disarmed following the 2003 US-led invasion of Iraq.
The “25 year presence of Ashraf residents in Iraq has been in accordance with international laws and treaties,” the PMOI said in a Thursday response from Paris to Zebari’s remarks, also insisting that they are entitled to status as “protected persons” under the Geneva convention.
Separately, a lawyer for plaintiffs in a case filed in Spain said on Tuesday that a judge is to probe a raid by Iraqi police and soldiers on the PMOI’s Camp Ashraf in July 2009 that killed 11 people.
The PMOI statement said it was “very unfortunate” that Zebari did not mention that incident, and also accused Iran of “meddling” in Iraqi affairs.
This is Salehi’s second trip abroad since taking over the ministry.
His appointment, which is yet to be ratified by Iran’s parliament, came after Ahmadinejad sacked his predecessor Manouchehr Mottaki.
Iran and Saddam Hussein’s Iraq fought a bloody eight-year war in the 1980s which left almost a million people dead on both sides.
Ties between the two countries have warmed considerably since the overthrow of Saddam’s Sunni-dominated in the 2003 invasion.