Venezuelan President Hugo Chavez wound up his controversial visit to Iraq Friday, having become the first head of state to meet Iraqi President Saddam Hussein since 1991 despite criticism from the US.
Chavez completed a 24-hour visit on his tour of OPEC countries, crossing back overland into Iran at the Al-Munziriya crossing post.
"The Venezuelan delegation went through the border crossing at Al-Munziriya (190 kilometres, or 120 miles north-east, of Baghdad) headed for Iranian territory," an Iraqi official at the post told AFP.
The official said Chavez and his delegation were due to take a plane from an Iranian airport near the border to continue their tour of OPEC countries.
The Venezuelan president, whose country holds the revolving presidency of OPEC, had drawn fire from Washington by including Iraq on his itinerary. "It's just not the right thing to show up in Baghdad, particularly as a democratic leader visiting a dictator," US State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said earlier this week. "We think that's particularly inappropriate."
At a press conference in Baghdad Thursday, Chavez condemned US criticism of his visit to Iraq as interference in his country's affairs. "We regret, we condemn and we reject the (US) interference in our internal affairs," he said after his meeting with Saddam.
Just after entering Iraq, Chavez had said: "Venezuela is a sovereign state that takes educated decisions that serve its interests." "Why are they (the Americans) offended?" Chavez asked. "We are exercising our most absolute right." He urged the US not to attach too much importance to his visit to Iraq.
He justified his visit to Iraq, saying he had "discussed several matters with the Iraqi president covering oil, OPEC, the need to keep crude prices steady and the strengthening of OPEC's role. The Venezuelan leader also said he had invited Saddam to the forthcoming summit in Caracas, planned for September.
On Friday, the official Iraqi news agency reported that Saddam had accepted the invitation without making it clear whether he would personally attend the conference. Saddam has not left the country since the Gulf crisis of 1990-1991.
The Iraqi persident called for OPEC members to shake off US pressure, in order to ensure the summit's success. "If the summit is held and includes people representing foreign interests in OPEC's bosom, it will be difficult to reach an accord on constructive ideas," he added.
Asked about the Iraqi leader, Chavez said: "I found him an educated man who understands everything linked to OPEC. He received us with pomp and I had the honour of visiting Baghdad in his private car, which he drove himself."
Iraq's official news agency INA said that during the Venezuelan leader's visit the two countries signed an agreement on cultural exchange and a letter of intent to create a joint commission to promote bilateral cooperation.
The two agreements were signed Thursday, and the Venezuelan leader said in a later press conference that "relations between Venezuela and Iraq have started a dynamic phase."
The Venezuelan president is touring fellow OPEC nations to invite their leaders to next month's Caracas summit, the second in the cartel's 40-year history.
By Kamal Taha
© Agence France Presse 2000
© 2000 Mena Report (www.menareport.com )