Iran Winning Iraqi Hearts And Minds

Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad reacts during a press conference in Baghdad, Sunday, March 2, 2008. Ahmadinejad arrived Sunday in Baghdad for the first-ever trip by an Iranian president to Iraq.
AP Photo/Hadi Mizban

This Reporter's Notebook was written by CBS News correspondent Allen Pizzey, in Baghdad.

Every initiative and operation in Iraq, be it economic or military, seems to have a title, usually one that sounds like it has been devised by throwing darts at a set of words and then combining them like a slogan on a tee shirt.

If the Iranians had wanted one for Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's two-day jaunt, they could simply have used the title from a Carpenters song: "We've Only Just Begun".

Iran has been called the main beneficiary of the Iraq conflict so often it is almost a cliché. Ahmadinejad's trip was aimed at making it an indisputable fact. The removal of Iran's most implacable enemy - Saddam Hussein and his Baath Party - and its replacement by a Shiite-dominated regime, several of whose key players spent time in exile in Iran - was a freebie first step. Now the Iranians are well on their way.

For a send-off, Ahmadinejad didn't get just one "kiss for luck"; he got four, when he was welcomed by U.S.-backed Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, who threw in a symbolic hug by standing impassive while the Iranian leader told a joint press conference: "The Americans have to understand the facts of the region. Iraqi people do not like America."

Many of them, notably the Sunni minority, don't care all that much for Iran either. But, even they were impressed by the fact that Ahmadinejad flagged his trip well in advance, made a ceremonial arrival in full view of Iraqi media, traveled by road and did not stay in the fortified Green Zone.

The show was in stark contrast to President Bush and other American VIPs who, if they deign to venture off secure U.S. military bases after they arrive here unannounced and in secret, do so by helicopter.

The visit was about a lot more than symbolism, however. Ahmadinejad's entourage included a cadre of economic and energy experts.

Iran-Iraq trade already tops $8 billion per year. New initiatives announced during the two day visit included customs agreements, joint investment projects in oil ventures, construction of an airport near the Shiite holy city of Najaf for pilgrims, a free trade zone, integration of banking systems, exchange of technical expertise and a $1 billion loan in the form of goods and services provided by Iranian companies.

Perhaps the most far-sighted of all was the possible supply of electricity to Basra. How, the Iranians will be able to ask, can we be denied nuclear power to generate electricity that will help our struggling neighbor? The inability, however justified, of the coalition to fix the electricity supply they helped break and cannot completely defend from insurgents will only add weight to the argument.

Iran has been building up to this point for a long time. The Iranians kept their embassy here open even during the U.S. led invasion. Few Arab states have a functioning embassy in Baghdad, even now.

No neighboring Arab leader has come here. In a piece in Tuesday's Times of London, foreign editor Richard Beeston summed it up in one succinct sentence: "Without the need to fire a shot, Iran is becoming Iraq's indispensable political ally and trading partner."

The fact that Iran may be firing shots through the proxy of militias it backs and weapons the Americans say it supplies did not come up during the state visit. Quite the contrary. Ahmadinejad even made his points without the fiery anti-American rhetoric he has carried over from his days as a leader of students who occupied the U.S. embassy in Tehran in 1979.

His message from the pulpit of a press conference, covered by virtually all of the Iraqi and mainstream Arabic language press, was straightforward: "The people of this area got nothing from the occupation here except damage, sabotage, destruction, insults and degradation."

It is not that much out of sync with what many Iraqis - Shiite and Sunni alike - see when they look at their inadequate public services, car and suicide bombs and their squabbling, dysfunctional government.

Admonishing "major powers who have come from thousands of kilometers away" as "an insult to regional nations," and telling them to "go back home" may be somewhat disingenuous on Ahmadinejad's part, but it does seem to have struck a chord that will keep Iran's song up high on the local charts.