|Children spoke with a US soldier in Baghdad, where Iran's former president, Hashemi Rafsanjani, made his first visit since 1979. The Shi'ite ayatollah pledged to help Iraq rebuild after nearly six years of war that has involved Shi'ite militias with suspected links to Tehran. (Ahmad Al-Rubaye/ AFP/ Getty Images)|
Former president of Iran vows help in rebuilding Iraq
Tehran's pledge seen as bolstering links to Baghdad
BAGHDAD - One of Iran's most powerful political and religious figures, Hashemi Rafsanjani, a former president, promised yesterday to assist in Iraq's reconstruction after nearly six years of war that has involved Shi'ite militias with suspected links to Tehran.
"We hope the era of conflict and hardships for Iraq is coming to an end," Rafsanjani told reporters in his first visit to Iraq since Iran's 1979 Islamic Revolution.
Iran, a predominantly Shi'ite country, has close ties with Iraq's Shi'ite-led government and seeks to expand its commercial links as Iraq looks ahead to projects to rebuild roads and core services such as electrical networks and sewers.
Rafsanjani's visit came three days after President Obama announced that the US military would end its combat mission in Iraq in August 2010, but leave up to 50,000 soldiers in support roles until the end of 2011.
Iran says Washington might try to exert influence over Iraq even after its troops are gone to maintain pressure on Iran's doorstep. Rafsanjani's visit also will be closely watched for any signals that Tehran might be willing to hold talks with the United States.
American officials have accused Iran of aiding Shi'ite militants who have attacked US forces. Tehran has denied the charges.
In another development, an Iraqi judge handed down death sentences for three officials in Saddam Hussein's regime for slayings and abuses inflicted on Shi'ites a decade ago. The defendants included Ali Hassan al-Majid, known as "Chemical Ali" for ordering poison gas attacks on Iraqi Kurds in the 1980s. This was his third death sentence for brutalities during Saddam's rule.
Also sentenced to death were Mahmoud Faizi al-Hazaa, an intelligence official, and Aziz Saleh al-Numan, a top Ba'ath Party official in the Baghdad region. Three other Saddam officials received life sentences and two were acquitted, including Foreign Minster Tariq Aziz, who faces other charges and remains in custody.
Rafsanjani, an influential Shi'ite ayatollah, was given a red carpet welcome by President Jalal Talabani of Iraq at Baghdad's airport.
Talabani said Iraqi authorities could benefit from Rafsanjani's "long experience" as a leader who helped rebuild Iran after its war with Iraq.
Under Saddam, Iraq fought a brutal war with Iran from 1980 to 1988 that killed more than 1 million people. The current Shi'ite-led government in Baghdad has good relations with Iran, but Sunnis and others have questioned whether Tehran wields too much influence over some Shi'ite Iraqi politicians.
Rafsanjani was Iran's president from 1989 to 1997 but was defeated in a presidential comeback bid in 2005 by hard-liner Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who is running for reelection in June. Rafsanjani is not expected to join the race.
The former president is conservative but also seen as pragmatic, often willing to cut deals with other factions.
He leads a panel of clerics empowered to monitor Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, and eventually choose his successor. But he also carries wider clout as an elder statesman and through his family's business empire.
Last month, Rafsanjani told Germany's former chancellor, Gerhard Schröder, who was visiting Iran, that Tehran was willing to hold talks with the United States on Iran's nuclear program if both sides are treated as equals.
In violence yesterday, two bombs killed at least five people in Shi'ite areas of Diyala province, an area north of Baghdad that remains an insurgent hot bed despite security gains.
An American soldier died yesterday of wounds suffered in combat north of Baghdad, the US military said. The statement did not provide details about the injuries or the attack.
The death raised the number of US military members who have died in the Iraq war since 2003 to at least 4,254, according to an Associated Press count.