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President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad is expected to visit neighbouring Iraq by March 19, Iran's foreign minister said on Sunday, a trip that would make him the first leader of the Islamic Republic to visit its former foe.
"All the necessary preparations and arrangements have been made for this trip and, God willing, it will take place before the end of the year," Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki was quoted as saying by the official IRNA news agency.
He was referring to the Iranian year which ends on March 19.
Iraq's Foreign Ministry said last month that Ahmadinejad, who like other Iranian leaders often rail against the US military presence in Iraq, had accepted an invitation to visit Baghdad but it did not announce a date.
Iran, a predominantly Shi'ite Muslim country, and Iraq fought an eight-year war in the 1980s in which hundreds of thousands were killed.
But ties have improved since Sunni Muslim strongman Saddam Hussein was ousted in the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003 and a Shi'ite Islamist-led government came to power in Baghdad.
Both Iraqi President Jalal Talabani and Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki have visited Iran, which some Middle East analysts say exerts greater influence in Iraq than the United States.
A visit to Baghdad by Ahmadinejad may irritate Washington which is at odds with Iran over Tehran's disputed nuclear programme and over who is to blame for the bloodshed in Iraq.
Washington has accused Iran of exerting "negative influence" in Iraq through arming and training of Shi'ite militias.
Iran denies this and says it is committed to peace in Iraq. Tehran also rejects accusations it aims to build nuclear bombs.
Iraq's US-backed government, still dependent on US forces to protect its borders, has said it does not want to be caught in the middle of any dispute between the two. (Reuters)
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