Iranian foreign minister visits neighboring Iraq

Associated Press
Iran's Foreign Minister Mohammed Javad Zarif, left, meets with his Iraqi counterpart Hoshyar Zebari, right, after arriving at the Baghdad International Airport, Iraq, Sunday, Sept. 8, 2013. Iran's new foreign minister has arrived in neighboring Iraq on his first trip abroad since taking office. (AP Photo/Saad Shalash, Pool)
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BAGHDAD (AP) — Iran's new foreign minister arrived in Iraq on Sunday on his first trip abroad since taking office, underscoring the growing links between the two Shiite-led neighbors.

Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif was met at Baghdad International Airport by his Iraqi counterpart, Hoshyar Zebari. He is also meeting Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and the parliament speaker, Osama al-Nujaifi, in a visit likely to focus on the civil war raging across Iraq's border in Syria.

"We have joint concerns with our Iraqi brothers on war-waging in the region," the official Iranian news agency IRNA quoted Zarif as saying before his departure. That is an apparent reference to U.S.-led plans for strikes on Iran's ally Syria.

Iran and Iraq fought a ruinous war from 1980 to 1988. The two countries have bolstered ties considerably since the 2003 U.S.-led invasion that ousted Saddam Hussein.

Hundreds of thousands of Iranian pilgrims annually now visit Shiite holy sites in Iraq despite ongoing security risks, and Iraq is a major market for Iranian products. Iran has been increasingly cut off from the world's financial system following multiple rounds of sanctions over its disputed nuclear program. The Iraqi market offers it an important source of hard currency.

The Western-educated Zarif is the highest-ranking Iranian official to visit Iraq since President Hasan Rouhani came to office last month.

Rouhani is seen as more moderate than his predecessor, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who paid a farewell visit to Baghdad and the Iraqi Shiite holy cities of Najaf and Karbala in July. An earlier visit by Ahmadinejad in 2008 was the first by an Iranian president since Iran's 1979 Islamic Revolution.

Iran is the main regional backer of Syrian President Bashar Assad, whose troops are battling largely Sunni rebels who receive support from Sunni countries such as Turkey and the Gulf states.

Iraq is officially neutral in the conflict, though its Shiite leadership is worried about the threat posed by Sunni extremists, including Iraq's al-Qaida branch, fighting among the rebels. It repeatedly has called for a negotiated political solution to the crisis.

The United States has been pressuring Iraq for months to do more to stop Iranian flights suspected of carrying weapons to Syria from transiting its airspace. Iraqi officials have carried out some spot checks of Iranian planes and say they've found nothing.

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Associated Press writer Nasser Karimi in Tehran, Iran, contributed to this report.

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Follow Adam Schreck on Twitter at www.twitter.com/adamschreck .

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