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Baghdad, March 12 (IANS) Iranian President Hassan Rouhani is seeking to boost economic links with Iraq on his first official visit to the neighbouring country at a time when the US is upping efforts to curb Tehran’s regional influence.
A strong relationship with Iraq – a former enemy – is now paramount in Iran’s foreign policy, Efe news reported on Tuesday.
Tehran is looking for Baghdad’s support to mitigate the effects of sanctions reimposed by the US after it pulled out of the 2015 multilateral Iranian nuclear deal last year.
While Iraq is a major oil producer, it still relies on natural gas from Iran for more than 40 percent of its electricity. Power shortages drove widespread protests in Iraq last year.
Iranian armed forces assisted Iraq in ousting the Islamic State terror group from its territory after a devastating three-year war against the extremist group.
The two countries share a 900-mile border and are home to Shia Muslim-majority population.
During his three-day visit that began on Monday, Rouhani is expected to leverage Tehran’s relationship with Baghdad to explore ways to keep Iranian natural gas flowing to its western neighbour and boost other trade.
In a joint press conference with Iraqi President Barham Salih, Rouhani said Iran had stood by Iraq’s people and its army during difficult times – in a nod to Iran’s role in battling Islamic State.
Salih, in turn, thanked his Iranian counterpart for support during "the war against terrorism" and added: "Iraq is lucky with its Muslim neighbours in Iran and Turkey, and lucky with its Arab roots."
Rouhani also met Iraqi Prime Minister Abdel Abdul-Mahdi to discuss joint economic projects and cooperation against terrorism, and also Iraq’s chief Shia cleric, Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani.
The visit comes as the Trump administration has amped up pressure on Tehran and warned other countries against trading with Iran.
Over the past few months, US officials have visited Baghdad to try to persuade Iraq to wean itself off Iranian energy and secure Washington’s continued political influence in the country.