Iraqi Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari and seven government ministers are beginning a historic visit to Iran. It is Iraq's first high-level delegation to Tehran since the two countries fought a bitter war in the 1980s, which killed at least one million people. Some residents of the capital say, while they support better relations with their neighbor, they are concerned the visit to Shi'ite Iran may further alienate Iraqi Sunnis, and aggravate sectarian tension.
|Iraqi Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari gestures during a news briefing|
Prime Minister Jaafari's office says, the delegation members, including Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari and Defense Minister Sadoun al-Dulaimi, are expected to meet with Iranian officials to discuss economic, security and energy issues.
Mr. Jaafari is scheduled to sign landmark oil and power agreements with Tehran, aimed at better meeting Iraq's need for more gasoline and electricity.
The deal calls for, among other things, building an oil pipeline between the southern Iraqi city of Basra and Iran's Abadan Port to import refined fuels into Iraq from Central Asia. Although Iraq sits on the second largest oil reserve in the world, it began importing gasoline two years ago, because of crippling shortages caused by insurgent attacks on energy infrastructure and by rampant corruption.
A visit to Tehran last week by Defense Minister Dulaimi paved the way for closer ties with Iran. During that visit, Mr. Dulaimi called for general reconciliation, and asked Iran to forgive Iraq for "Saddam Hussein's aggressions," referring to the ousted leader's attack on Iran in 1980, which ignited a bloody eight-year war.
On Saturday, some Iraqi Shi'ites in Baghdad gave their support to the Shi'ite-led government's efforts to engage Iran.
Baghdad resident Adel Mohammed Kassem, 50, says he believes establishing normal relations with Tehran is necessary for regional stability.
Now that Saddam is gone, Iraq should move forward and mend fences with Iran and all of its neighbors, for the sake of long-term peace, Mr. Kassem says.
But Sunni Arab Moahmmed Ali Jassem, 53, says he believes the prime minister's trip to Iran has disturbing implications for Iraqi Sunnis.
Mr. Jassem says he believes Mr. Jaafari is visiting Iran to strengthen Shi'ite religious ties.
He notes that Mr. Jaafari, who is a Shi'ite, spent years in exile in Iran, and that many members of his government remain politically and religiously close to Iran, as well. The Baghdad resident says the government should know that no Iraqi Sunni would accept Tehran dictating Iraq's affairs.
Saleem Amer, 26, is one of several Shi'ites interviewed on Saturday, who warn that even moderate Sunnis are becoming alarmed by the rapid thawing of relations with Iran.
Mr. Amer, a computer technician, says he is worried that the government's visit risks alienating Sunni Arabs further, and inflaming the sectarian conflict, which has killed hundreds of people on both sides in recent months.
"It will bring us more problems than benefit, because you must ask the Sunnis if they agree about it," he said. "I know that our defense minister, Sadoun al-Dulaimi, is a Sunni guy. But he's running under a Shi'ite government, under Jaafari's government. So, he will accept anything that Jaafari will tell him, and Sunnis are not liking it. Look, we must listen to the Sunnis. We must listen to them. We must get their opinion."
Washington says it supports a warmer relationship between Iraq and Iran. But it has also repeatedly accused Iran of interfering in Iraqi affairs.
In a television interview on Thursday, outgoing Iranian President Mohammed Khatami denied allegations that Tehran was trying to impose a Shi'ite-ruled theocracy on Iraq.