One of Iran's most powerful political and religious figures — former President Hashemi Rafsanjani — began talks Monday with Iraqi leaders in the latest high-level contacts between the neighboring countries.

Rafsanjani's visit to Iraq comes three days after President Barack Obama announced that the U.S. military would end its combat mission in Iraq in August 2010 but leave up to 50,000 soldiers in support roles until the end of 2011.

Iran claims that Washington may seek to exert its influence over Iraq even after its troops are gone to maintain pressure on Iran's doorstep. Rafsanjani's visit also will be closely watched for any signals that Tehran may be willing to hold talks with Washington.

Also Monday, an Iraqi judge handed down death sentences to three former officials in Saddam Hussein's regime for slayings and abuses against Shiites a decade ago. The defendants included Ali Hassan al-Majid, known as "Chemical Ali," for ordering poison gas attacks in the 1980s. This was his third death sentence for brutalities during Saddam's rule.

Three other former Saddam officials received life sentences while two were acquitted, including former Foreign Minster Tariq Aziz. But Aziz faces other charges and remained in custody.

Rafsanjani, an influential Shiite ayatollah, was given a red carpet welcome by Iraqi President Jalal Talabani at Baghdad's airport Monday.

"We hope the era of conflict and hardships for Iraq is coming to an end," Rafsanjani told reporters at a joint news conference.

Talabani said Iraqi authorities could benefit from Rafsanjani's "long experience" as a leader who helped rebuild Iran after its war with Iraq.

Under Saddam, Iraq fought a brutal war with Iran from 1980-88 that left more than 1 million dead on both sides. But the current Shiite-led government in Baghdad maintains close ties to Iran — a predominantly Shiite Muslim country — though Sunnis and others have questioned whether Tehran wields too much influence over some Shiite Iraqi politicians.

Rafsanjani was president from 1989-97 but was defeated in a presidential comeback bid in 2005 to hard-liner Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, who is running for re-election in June. Rafsanjani is not expected to join the race.

The former president is conservative but also seen as pragmatic, often willing to cut deals with other factions. He leads a panel of clerics empowered to monitor Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, and eventually choose his successor. But he also carries wider clout as an elder statesman and through his family's vast business empire.

Last month, Rafsanjani told former German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder, who was visiting Iran, that Tehran was willing to hold talks with the United States on its nuclear program if both sides are treated as equals.

Washington and its allies worry that Iran will use its uranium enrichment program to make weapons-grade material. Iran says it only seeks a peaceful nuclear program for electricity production.

The other two former Saddam officials sentenced to death Monday were Mahmoud Faizi al-Hazaa, a former intelligence official, and Aziz Saleh al-Numan, who served as a top Baath Party official in the Baghdad region.

The three were sentenced for a 1999 crackdown that sought to quell a Shiite backlash to the slaying of Grand Ayatollah Mohammad al-Sadr. His supporters blame the killing on Saddam's agents.

Also Monday, a roadside bomb struck an Iraqi Army patrol in Balad Ruz, 45 miles northeast of Baghdad, killing two soldiers and wounding three others, said an Iraqi police official.

The official spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to release the information.