Despite the hype, Ahmadinejad’s Iraq visit a failure

Fox News, March 6, 2008

Behind the orchestrated pomp and pageantry during the visit to Baghdad last weekend by the Iranian ayatollahs’ president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, it was hard to miss the revulsion of Iraqis of all stripes. Adjectives like “historic” could not disguise the frustrating reality for Ahmadinejad and the ayatollahs: outside of Iraqi political spheres dominated by Tehran surrogates, they are seen as enemies of a secure, non-sectarian and democratic Iraq.

The greeting parties, in the Baghdad airport and later in various government buildings, were who’s who of Tehran’s proxies in Iraq’s government. They “listened to Ahmadinejad,” according to McClatchy News Service, “without need of translation into Arabic, clearly comfortable hearing his Farsi.” Not surprising; for more than two decades, they were employed by Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps, the Qods Force, and the Ministry of Intelligence. Learning Farsi was a job requirement.

Outside of the very limited segment of Baghdad where Ahmadinejad visited, there was outrage. A young Baghdad resident told the New York Times, “I think Ahmadinejad is the most criminal and bloody person in the world. This visit degrades Iraq’s dignity.” Up north in Kirkuk, where Arab tribes and political parties rallied against Ahmadinejad’s visit, a tribal leader told the Times, “How can we tolerate this? Today we live under the regime of the clerics. The Iranian revolution has been exported to Iraq.” An Iraqi businessman added, “His visit is intended to reassure his followers here,” but is “provoking and enraging” the rest of Iraq.

In the streets of Baghdad and other cities, the slogans on the walls and banners at protest rallies were as telling. Graffiti in Al Habibia neighborhood near Sadr city called Ahmadinejad “a champion of Islamic nuclear bomb who will defeat Israel,” but in other neighborhoods, like Al Saydia, Al Adel and Al Ghzalia, writing on the walls denounced Ahmadinejad as “a godfather of sectarian violence that divides Iraq.”

“Your mortars preceded your visit,” one placard read. Another read, “We condemn visit of terrorist and butcher Ahmadinejad to Iraq,” according to the Associated Press. “We have seen today a visit by [a president] of a state with hands tarnished by the blood of innocent people in Iraq, Lebanon, Syria and Palestine,” the leader of the Iraqi Kirkuk Front declared during a protest rally.

The outrage was widespread among independent Iraqi political figures of various backgrounds. Abdul-Karim al-Samaraie, a lawmaker with the Iraqi Accordance Front, told Al-Jazeera TV that “We wish that there would be a commitment from the Iranian president personally to cease all kind of interventions in Iraq’s security and political affairs.” Muhammad al-Daini, a member of the Iraqi National Assembly denounced Ahmadinejad’s visit in an interview with the Al-Hurra TV channel, and called for the shutdown of the Iranian regime’s diplomatic offices in Iraq.

Significantly, in a joint statement, over 130 Iraqi tribal leaders from the Shiite-dominated provinces of southern Iraq also denounced Ahmadinejad’s visit. “Since five years ago Iraq has turned into the scene of the Iranian regime’s meddling and aggression. Everyday hundreds of Iraqis are victims of the Iranian exported terrorism. In southern Iraq we are witnessing the murder of our children and ransack of our oil and other national wealth by the criminal elements of the Iranian regime,” the statement said. In late 2007, more than 300,000 Shiite Iraqis, including hundreds of tribal leaders from the southern provinces, signed a petition condemning the Iranian regime’s meddling in Iraq and supporting the presence of the main Iranian opposition group, the People’s Mojahedin Organization of Iran (PMOI/MEK), in Iraq.

Ahmadinejad’s trip was a dismal failure on other levels, as well. Lost in the headlines was the news that he was shunned by the leader he most sought after. The meeting Ahmadinejad desperately coveted was not with Iraqi President Jalal Talebani or Iraq’s Prime Minister Nuri Al-Maliki. They are regular visitors to Tehran. Ahmadinejad and his team, for a variety of domestic and foreign policy considerations, sought a photo-op with Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, Iraq’s most influential Shiite cleric. Ayatollah Sistani, citing “scheduling conflicts,” snubbed Ahmadinejad, who had to cancel his trip to Najaf and cut short his Iraq visit by one day, according to the Iraqi TV channel, al-Sharquiyah.

Before Ahmadinejad’s Baghdad visit, some media reports indicated that the presence of MEK members in Ashraf city, 60 miles northeast of Baghdad, was going to be a main topic of discussion with Tehran-friendly Iraqi political leaders. Eager to please, Iraqi President Jalal Talebani said during a joint news conference that his government was trying to expel the MEK, as long demanded by Tehran.

In a rebuke to Talebani, however, U.S. military spokesman Major Winfield Danielson reiterated that the PMOI members are under “protected person status” at Ashraf city. He explained to Reuters News Agency that in 2003 the MEK members in Ashraf had agreed to give up their arms in exchange for the protected persons status and had signed a ceasefire letter in April of that year.

Ahmadinejad’s fear of the MEK based in Ashraf City is rooted in strategic, practical grounds. According to prominent Iraqi politicians, since 2003 Ashraf’s residents have acted as a principal catalyst in bringing about a formidable, non-sectarian democratic Iraqi front against Tehran’s meddling in Iraq.

Back in Washington, lawmakers on both sides of the isle were briefed by top U.S. military commanders about Tehran’s rising efforts to train, arm, and support militant sectarian forces in Iraq. The US legislators deplored Ahmadinejad’s talk about security and stability as the height of hypocrisy.

Lieutenant General Raymond Odierno, the former number two U.S. commander in Iraq, told reporters that “What they [Tehran] ought to stop doing is training surrogates, funding surrogates and supplying weapons to them, which they are still doing today.”

Mocking Ahmadinejad’s boast that he could visit Iraq openly, unlike other foreign leaders who made unannounced visits, Gen. Odierno said “I’m not surprised. Because over the last 12 months whenever a visitor would come from the United States, we needed to foil a rocket attack. Guess what? That is because it was being done by an Iranian surrogate.”

“I think it’s offensive,” said Sen. Carl Levin, (D-Mich.), Chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, of Ahmadinejad’s trip. Sen. John Warner, the committee’s Ranking Republican from Virginia, said, “I would hope that others in the administration would express their indignation about this visit and the comments made by that president because they go to the very heart of the enormity of the sacrifices of life and limb that we have suffered in trying to provide Iraq the ability to become a strong and sovereign nation.”

With the hype of Ahmadinejad’s trip behind us, it is back to reality. The tyrant ayatollahs continue to step up their support for their terrorist network in Iraq. Meanwhile, they will try to showcase their surrogates in Iraq’s government to hide their growing isolation in the streets of Iran and Iraq.