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Ahmadinejad's Iraq visit bolsters Iran's influence

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"If the US is not there to protect [the Kurds and Shiites], they have no choice but to turn to Iran. Iraq's Shiites know that without a foreign backer, they will be massacred by Sunni Arabs. And the Kurds fear the Turks," says Amir Taheri, a London-based analyst and journalist of Iranian descent.

In contrast to the Iraq visits of American officials, including President Bush, which are never announced for security reasons, Ahmadinejad landed here to much pomp.

At the Baghdad airport, he descended the stairs of his presidential jet smiling and waving. He was greeted with hugs and kisses by top Iraqi officials, including Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari, a Kurd. Hundreds of Kurdish peshmerga, considered the most capable of Iraq's forces, were in charge of security as the convoy carrying Ahmadinejad made its way from the airport to Iraqi President Jalal Talabani's residence.

"I thank God for blessing us with the good fortune to visit Iraq and to meet our dear brothers in oppressed Iraq," Ahmadinejad said in a brief statement after meeting with Mr. Talabani. "Visiting Iraq without the dictator is a truly joyous occasion."

During Saddam Hussein's rule, Iran and Iraq fought a bloody war between 1980 and 1988 that left nearly 1 million dead. For many Iraqis, especially Sunni Arabs, Iran at the time was the epitome of all evil and an extension of the Arab-Persian conflict throughout history. Several monuments commemorating the war still stand in Baghdad. The famous crossed-swords Processional Way monument, within the Green Zone, reads: "Iraqis scored heroic epics in defending their lands against the Persian aggression."

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