|President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of Iran returned to Tehran yesterday after a 36-hour visit in Iraq. (ATTA KENARE/AFP/Getty Images)|
BAGHDAD - President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad of Iran smiled for the cameras.
At ease, he talked with reporters, sitting alone at a simple table yesterday inside the Iraqi presidential compound. The visiting Iranian patiently called on raised hands without the benefit of a host, like a benevolent schoolteacher conversing with his students.
One question was about US accusations of Iranian meddling in Iraq.
"We discussed with the Iraqi side the issues that serve the interests of the two countries," he said. "We are not committed to answer the demands of others."
Another was about whether Shi'ite Muslim Iran would cultivate ties with Iraq's Sunni groups as well as with the Shi'ite political parties and Kurdish militias it once sheltered and nurtured to fight Saddam Hussein's regime.
"Our relations with all the factions in Iraq are good," he said. "This [distinction] may be important for the foreigners. But we view things differently."
In tone and body language, Ahmadinejad's message during his visit was clear. The United States does not belong in Iraq; Iran does. Iran can and will help in the reconstruction of Iraq, a point underscored by the signing of seven memorandums of understanding between the two countries.
Meanwhile, he suggested, Americans should take their money and leave.
Ahmadinejad offered his answers without ambiguity, despite promising his hosts he would avoid making incendiary remarks about the US presence.
"Peace and stability will return to the region if the foreigners leave," he told reporters. "We believe the powers that came from overseas thousands of miles away must leave this region and leave the issues in the hands of the locals. If they claim that they want to spend their money to develop the region, I think it's better to spend this money in their own country."
For Ahmadinejad, "foreigner" presumably does not include Iranians.
During his visit, which ended yesterday, he spoke frequently of Iran's long ties to Iraq and the interconnectedness of the two countries, which fought an eight-year war in the 1980s but have much in common religiously and culturally.
Ahmadinejad followed a decidedly different diplomatic choreography from the trips of President Bush or British prime ministers. Instead of flying in secretly and unannounced, Ahmadinejad's trip was trumpeted weeks ago.
And instead of shying from the media, as US officials often do, Ahmadinejad made four media appearances in a 36-hour visit.
"Two months of preparations were made for your visit to Iraq," a reporter asked Ahmadinejad at yesterday's media event in Talabani's compound. "But the foreigners come secretly and discreetly. You came and stayed two days. Why?"
Ahmadinejad broadened his smile and nodded as the reporter finished the question.
"We lived with each other for hundreds of years," he replied. "Visits must be made openly. You should ask [the foreigners] why they make their visits secret."