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Iran's Rouhani seeks to counter US pressure on first Iraq visit

AFP  |  Baghdad 

Iran's hit back Monday against pressure from the "aggressor" on to limit ties with its neighbour, during his first official visit to

Shiite-majority is walking a fine line to maintain good relations with its key partners and the which themselves are arch-foes.

It has been under pressure from not to get too close to the Islamic republic next door, particularly after the last year withdrew from the 2015 nuclear deal with and hit with sanctions.

was given limited waivers to continue buying and from Iran, but has urged to partner with US companies to become independent.

Rouhani, who is on his first trip to Iraq since becoming in 2013, hailed his country's "special" ties with its neighbour.

These relations could not be compared to Iraq's ties "with an aggressor country like America", he said before flying Monday to for the three-day visit.

"is despised in the region. The bombs that the Americans dropped on Iraqis, Syrian people and other countries cannot be forgotten," he added.

is always ready to help its neighbours, he said, in a nod to the role played to help Iraq battle the Islamic State group (IS).

Iraq's Barham Saleh, at a joint conference with Rouhani in Baghdad, thanked Iran for its "support" and said he was "lucky" to have it as a neighbour, without making any reference to the US.

Rouhani, who is heading a large political and economic delegation, said relations between the two countries should be further "reinforced and developed".

After Turkey, Iran is the top supplier of imported goods to Iraq, including cars, gas, home appliances and vegetables.

Iran was the first country to respond to Iraqi calls for help after IS jihadists in June 2014 captured the main northern city of as they threatened to overrun the capital Baghdad and the of Kirkuk.

It dispatched "military advisors" and equipment along with the famous Revolutionary Guards elite

Rouhani on Monday said Iran has supported the Iraqi people "during difficult times" and would continue to back them "through times of peace and security".

Relations between the two countries were not always close -- they fought a bloody war from 1980 to 1988.

Tehran's influence in Baghdad grew after the 2003 US-led invasion of Iraq toppled the government of

Iran now has significant leverage over Iraq's Shiite political groups.

Rouhani is also set to meet Iraqi as well as the country's Shiite Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, who is also revered by many Iranians.

The meeting in the Shiite shrine city of will be the first between the top and an Iranian president. In 2013 the grand ayatollah refused to receive Rouhani's controversial predecessor

Analysts say talks between Sistani and Rouhani are aimed at bolstering the ranks of Shiite Muslims in the face of Iraq's warming ties with Iran's Sunni-ruled rival

The meeting could "prevent and its allies from sowing discord" between Iran and Iraq, a Shiite from the Iranian holy city of was recently quoted as saying in Iran's Ebtekar newspaper.

is keen to develop relations with Baghdad to counter the influence of Iran in Iraq, which is seeking economic benefits to rebuild after the defeat of IS.

Iraqi said Rouhani is seeking to bolster trade with Baghdad and discuss ways "to circumvent US sanctions".

"In addition, there are electricity, water and other files," he said.

Iran's Mohammad Javad Zarif, who travelled to Iraq ahead of Rouhani, on Sunday thanked Baghdad for having "refused the injust and illegal (US) sanctions imposed on the Iranian people".

Trade between Iran and Iraq now stands at around USD 12 billion a year -- tilted toward Iran with gas and exports -- and Rouhani has said he would like to see it rise to USD 20 billion.

(This story has not been edited by Business Standard staff and is auto-generated from a syndicated feed.)

First Published: Mon, March 11 2019. 19:17 IST