Monday 18 August 2008

Visiting Iraqi seeks to reassure Iran over US pact

TEHRAN (Reuters) - A deal allowing U.S. forces to stay in Iraq beyond the end of this year is not aimed at keeping military pressure on Iran, Iraqi Deputy Prime Minister Barham Salih said on Thursday during a visit to Tehran.

The reassurance came at a time when relations between the two neighbours have been more strained than usual over accusations that Iran supported renegade Shi'ite militias in Iraq during battles with government forces earlier this year.

Iran's parliament speaker Ali Larijani denounced the prospective U.S-Iraqi security pact, saying the idea of a continued U.S. presence was ringing alarm bells in the region.

"The aim of the presence of U.S. forces in Iraq is to serve the security and stability of Iraq, not to use Iraq as a base to target the interests of our neighbours," Salih told reporters.

"It is in our interest to consult with our neighbours, Iran and other states, so as not to be misunderstood."

Salih met President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and other officials during the trip, which he said was focused more on economic and trade issues than politics and security.

An aide said Salih had also discussed an Iraqi proposal for a regional security network which would include Iran, Turkey and Arab states.

Iran, which fought an eight-year war with Iraq in the 1980s but has influential ties with Iraq's current Shi'ite-led government, has long opposed the presence of U.S. forces, which number about 144,000 in Iraq.

"The issue of a security pact between Iraq and the U.S. irritates the sensitivities of everybody -- the leaders and the states that are friends of Iraq," Iranian parliament speaker Larijani told Reuters.

AMERICAN INTERFERENCE "HARMFUL"

"The interference in determining the destiny of Iraq will be harmful, especially for the Americans (themselves). They must not demand from Iraq more than is required. Let the Iraqi people choose how to live and what government they want."

Salih acknowledged that Iran had expressed concern.

"There is an Iranian stance regarding this issue. I confirmed this is an Iraqi issue that is based on the Iraqi national interest ... which aims to protect the sovereignty of Iraq," he said. The security deal under negotiation would provide a legal basis for U.S. forces to remain in Iraq after a U.N. Security Council mandate expires at the end of this year. The U.N. mandate was passed after the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq in 2003, and has authorised the presence of U.S. forces ever since.

Iraqi authorities say the deal is nearly complete and should be presented to parliament in September. They are seeking a "time horizon" which will commit the United States to an eventual withdrawal.

Washington has long accused mainly Shi'ite Iran of meddling in the affairs of Iraq, which has a Shi'ite Muslim majority and a Shi'ite-led government since the U.S.-led invasion that toppled Sunni Arab dictator Saddam Hussein.

President George W. Bush has named Iran a member of an "axis of evil" and accuses it of unlawfully seeking nuclear weapons.

Iraq's relations with Iran were tested earlier this year when Iraqi officials joined Washington in accusing Iran of providing funding and weapons for Shi'ite militias, which the Iraqi government was targeting in a crackdown.

Iran denies it supports the militias, and says the U.S. presence is responsible for fomenting violence in Iraq. (Reporting by Khalid al-Ansary; Writing by Peter Graff; Editing by David Clarke)

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