TEHRAN (AP) â€” Iran promised Sunday it would help curb raging violence in Iraq, saying it has been cracking down on Al Qaeda militants on its soil â€” with arrests as recent as last week â€” and agreeing on closer security cooperation with Iraq’s visiting Shiite prime minister.
Iraq’s Ibrahim Jaafari held talks with outgoing Iranian President Mohammad Khatami in a visit that aims to further solidify ties between the US-allied government in Iraq and Iran, which considers the United States its top enemy.
The new Iraqi government elected this year is dominated by Shiites, including leaders like Jaafari who have longtime ties to Iran’s clerics. It was the first visit by an Iraqi premier to Iran since the fall of Saddam Hussein in 2003.
Jaafari meet the next day with Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, the hard-line president-elect who will be replacing the reformist Khatami early next month. Ahmadinejad is expected to pursue the same line of closer ties with Iraq’s government â€” but may put more pressure for the withdrawal of American forces.
“The security and stability of both countries are interrelated,” Khatami said in the meeting with Jaafari, according to state-run radio. “Tehran will do its utmost for the restoration of stability and security” in Iraq.
Jaafari, who is leading a delegation of more than 10 Cabinet ministers to Iran, is expected to sign a security agreement with in the Persian state, against which Iraq fought a 1980-88 war that killed more than 1 million people on both sides.
“Today, we need a double and common effort to confront terrorism that may spread in the region and the world,” said Jaafari, who is also expected to meet supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei.
A day earlier, Iran’s Intelligence Minister Ali Younesi said Iranian authorities have detained and deported 2,000 to 3,000 Al Qaeda members since late 2001.
“Currently some 200 Al Qaeda members are in Iranian prisons,” Younesi said, according to the state-run Islamic Revolution News Agency.
Most recently, Iranian authorities uncovered Al Qaeda-linked cells planning to assassinate Sunni students at a theological school in Iran “who were cooperating with Iranian authorities.” The members of the cell were arrested last week, he said.
Younesi did not give further details on how many arrests were made or where.
In the past, Iran caught Al Qaeda militants trying to cross its soil from Afghanistan after the 2001 fall of the Taleban and, later, arrested other elements in hiding that had been planning to “launch terrorist operations from Iran,” Younesi said.
Al Qaeda in Iraq, led by militant Abu Mussab Zarqawi, has carried out some of the bloodiest attacks in Iraq’s insurgency. Biographies of Zarqawi posted on Islamic militant web forums say he snuck from Afghanistan to Iraq after the Taleban’s fall, crossing Iran with a group of fighters, some of whom were arrested along the way.
Some Sunni Arab leaders have voiced fears over the emergence of a Shiite-led Iraqi government with close ties to Iran, suggesting it could lead to the creation of a “Shiite crescent” in the Gulf region which would, in turn, unsettle political and social balances.
Jaafari’s trip is the first by a top Iraqi official to Iran in more than a decade. In 1991, Izzat Ibrahim, vice chairman of the Revolutionary Command Council and the second man in command, visited Tehran.
Before Saddam’s fall, Jaafari spent more than two decades in exile. One of the top leaders of the Islamic Daawa Party, he fled to Iran in 1980 and remained there until 1990, organising cross-border attacks while studying Shiite theology in the city of Qom.