Ahmadinejad in Baghdad; Iraqi Death Toll up 33% in February; Sadrists Protest Veto of Provinces Law

The Iraqi civilian death toll was up 33% in February over January. AFP says, “The combined figures from the interior, defence and health ministries showed that the total number of Iraqis killed in February was 721, including 636 civilians, compared with 541 dead in January.”

Meanwhile, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad arrived in Baghdad on Sunday morning, to be greeted by Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari. Ahmadinejad was invited by President Jalal Talabani (who, like Zebari, is Kurdish). Talabani has old links of clientelage with Tehran. Ahmadinejad’s visit is designed to help shore up the Shiite-dominated government of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki of the Islamic Call (Da’wa Islamiyyah) Party. Bilateral agreements in 10 fields of endeavor are expected to be signed.

Although the US keeps accusing the Iranian government of deliberately trying to destabilize Iraq, President Talabani and PM al-Maliki steadfastly deny Washington’s accusations. And, of course, it does not in fact make sense that Iran would try to topple the first friendly Shiite regime ever to come to power in Baghdad.

Millions of Iranians come to Iraq every year on pilgrimage to holy cities like Karbala and Najaf, and Iran is funding an airport to allow them to fly into Najaf directly. The Iranian pilgrimage trade could eventually be worth billions. Iran in the past has pledged aid, including allowing Iraq to use Iranian ports for transshipping goods and outright grants of $2 bn.

Iran is likely to be a competitor in the medium to long term with the US for influence in Iraq.

Followers of Muqtada al-Sadr in the Iraqi parliament angrily spoke out against the Presidency Council for turning back a bill providing for provincial elections on Oct. 1. The Sadrists believe that VP Adil Abdul Mahdi of the Islamic Supreme Council of Iraq was the main mover behind the veto, and that he acted because ISCI is afraid it will lose new provincial elections to the Sadrists. ISCI is also said to oppose a provision allowing the prime minister to dismiss elected provincial governors. ISCI controls the provincial governments of several Iraqi provinces, including Diyala, Baghdad, Hilla, Najaf, Karbala, Qadisiya, Dhi Qar, and Muthanna. It also controls 20 of 41 seats on the Basra provincial council. It therefore risks a great deal if the Sadrists sweep to power in very many of these provinces.

Turkey’s chief of staff, Gen. Yasar Buyukanit, denied on Saturday that the end of the Turkish incursion into northern Iraq had had anything to do with US pressure. But US Secretary of Defense Robert Gates visited Ankara on Thursday, a day before the withdrawal. And, as late as Thursday, Buyukanit had been talking about a long-term Turkish presence. Draw your own conclusions.

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