NAJAF, Iraq (AP) — Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad traveled to southern Iraq on Friday to visit two of the most sacred cities for Shiite Muslims amid tight security on the second day of his two-day visit to the country.
The outgoing Iranian president’s visits to the cities of Najaf and Karbala during the Islamic holy month of Ramadan followed meetings with top Iraqi officials in Baghdad on Thursday that highlighted the tightening bonds between Shiite-led Iraq and Iran.
Ahmadinejad is stepping down after eight years as Iran’s president. He will be succeeded by president-elect Hasan Rouhani, who is expected to be sworn in in early August.
In Najaf and Karbala, Ahmadinejad on Friday followed in the footsteps of millions of Shiite pilgrims who have made the journey to the holy cities south of Baghdad.
Meanwhile, a bomb exploded Friday at a Sunni mosque north of the Iraqi capital, Baghdad, killing at least 17 people, said councilman Sadiq al-Huusseini.
Iraq has been rocked by a surge of violence that has killed more than 2,800 since the start of April, raising fears the country is returning to the widespread sectarian bloodshed that pushed it to the brink of civil war after the 2003 U.S.-led invasion.
In Najaf, security forces were deployed along the route used by Ahmadinejad’s convoy from the airport to the Imam Ali shrine, one of the holiest sites in Shiite Islam. Major roads leading to the shrine itself were sealed off. Najaf is about 160 kilometers (100 miles) south of Baghdad.
The Iranian president waved to worshippers and smiled as he entered the gold-domed shrine. He appeared to weep while praying inside the resplendent holy site, which houses the tomb of Imam Ali, the cousin and son-in-law of the Prophet Muhammad.
Ali was the fourth successor to Muhammed after his death in 632, though Shiites believe he was cheated and should have been the rightful successor from the start.
Ahmadinejad’s convoy then traveled to the city of Karbala. The city, 90 kilometers (55 miles) south of Baghdad, is home to the shrine of Imam Hussein, a central Shiite martyr who is Imam Ali’s son and the grandson of the Prophet Muhammad. He and his brother Abbas, buried nearby, were killed in a battle in the city that is central to Islam’s Sunni-Shiite split.
This is Ahmadinejad’s second visit to Iraq while in office. His previous trip in 2008 was the first by an Iranian president since Iran’s 1979 Islamic Revolution.
He met Thursday with Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and other officials. He used his brief public remarks in Baghdad to emphasize the success of his own country with that of one-time foe Iraq.
The two countries fought a ruinous eight-year war that claimed hundreds of thousands of lives in the 1980s, but the 2003 U.S.-led invasion that toppled dictator Saddam Hussein ushered in a new era of warm relations between Tehran and Baghdad.
Najaf and Karbala have boomed economically since the invasion, thanks to religious tourism driven in large part by the hundreds of thousands of Iranian pilgrims who visit annually.
Associated Press writer Adam Schreck in Baghdad contributed reporting.