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Iraq meeting offers room for possible Iran-U.S. overtures

Saturday, March 10, 2007

BAGHDAD -- Washington is sending a veteran Middle East hand. Tehran's envoy is a British-educated diplomat considered one of Iran's leading Western analysts.

Combine that with a flexible agenda and a matchmaking Iraqi host -- and the international gathering today to help steer Iraq's future also appears as a prime opportunity for some icebreaking overtures between Iran and the United States.

But any outreach -- no matter how limited -- would be shadowed by deep suspicions and grievances from both sides in their odd-couple roles: old foes yet also Iraq's two most influential allies.

"Don't expect any miracles," said Hamid Reza Jalaipour, a professor of political affairs at Tehran University.

In fact, expectations have been kept modest before the conference -- which includes delegates from Iraq's six neighbors, the five permanent U.N. Security Council members and several Arab representatives.

In Washington, the U.S. chief delegate, David Satterfield, said "we are not going to turn and walk away" if approached by Iran or Syria to discuss Iraq. But Satterfield, the top State Department adviser on Iraq, added Thursday that the United States plans to use the meeting to reinforce its accusations against both nations.

They include U.S. claims that Syria allows foreign jihadists and Sunni insurgents to cross its border into Iraq, and that weapon shipments from Iran reach Shiite militias. Both nations deny the allegations.

Iran's chief envoy, Abbas Araghchi, left Tehran without directly mentioning the United States, but said Iran "hopes to take more steps" to support the U.S.-backed government -- which is led by a Shiite prime minister with close ties to Shiite heavyweight Iran.

Iran, however, has strongly denounced the U.S. military presence.

The complaints grew more pointed in December after American forces detained two Iranian security agents at the compound of a major Shiite political bloc in Baghdad.

Six other Iranians were arrested Jan. 11 at an Iranian liaison office in northern Iraq. The U.S. military said they were members of Iran's elite Revolutionary Guard -- a charge Tehran rejects.

The showdown over Iran's nuclear program also lurks behind any attempt to ease the nearly 28-year diplomatic freeze with Washington.

"But both Iran and the United States realize they are stuck together on Iraq," said Alireza Nourizadeh, chief researcher at the London-based Center for Arab-Iranian Studies. "So perhaps they see this meeting as a way to open some doors for bilateral talks."

For Iran, opening more direct contacts with Washington could help promote their shared interests in Iraq, including trying to stamp out Sunni-led insurgents. U.S. officials, meanwhile, need the support of Iranian-allied political groups in Iraq to keep a lid on Shiite militias.

On a trip to Brazil on Friday, President Bush said the message to Syria and Iran won't change at the Baghdad conference.

"We expect you to help this young democracy," Bush said. "We will defend ourselves and the people in Iraq from weapons being shipped in that cause harm; that we will protect ourselves and help the Iraqi people protect themselves against those who would murder

the innocent to achieve political objectives."

There have been other chances in the past for one-one-one dialogue, but rarely with such promise.

In September, the United States joined Iran and Syria in talks on Iraq -- although Washington ruled out direct talks with Iran in advance. This time, however, there is an open invitation to Iran.

And both sides have dispatched well-suited diplomats.

Satterfield has served in posts in Saudi Arabia, Tunisia, Lebanon and Syria, as well as Washington positions including the National Security Council staff. Araghchi did postgraduate studies in England and served as ambassador to Finland. He's regarded as one of Iran's leading diplomatic strategists on relations with the West.

The host, Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari, juggles close ties with Iran and the United States and has left ample room for closed-door discussions and possible bilateral exchanges. Washington broke ties with Iran after militants stormed the U.S. Embassy in the wake of the 1979 Islamic Revolution.

The one-day session in Baghdad also carries little pressure on the delegates. It's designed only to pave the way for a high-level gathering possibly in April.

Zalmay Khalilzad, the U.S. ambassador to Iraq, said he would not necessarily object to meeting with the Iranians. "But, the first point to make to them is that they need to stop arms, Iranian arms, coming across the border," he told ABC's "Good Morning America."

The meeting also is the first time in nearly two years that Washington is willing to discuss security issues with Iran -- at a time when the Pentagon is pumping more than 20,000 troops into a Baghdad crackdown and boosting forces to strongholds of Sunni insurgents northeast of the capital.

The head of Iraq's largest Shiite political bloc, Abdul Aziz al-Hakim, endorsed the gathering in an address in the Shiite holy city of Karbala, where millions of pilgrims have gathered for an important Shiite religious commemoration.

"It is necessary to pay attention to the sacrifices of Iraqis over the past four years," said al-Hakim, who leads the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq, which is strongly linked to Iran.

Al-Hakim also took a swipe at the Arab League -- pointing to likely tensions at the meeting.

The Cairo-based group said this week that it would urge changes in Iraq's constitution to give more political power to Sunnis, who are outnumbered nearly 3-to-1 by Shiites. Many Shiites in Iraq saw the statement as a challenge to the legitimacy of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's government.

Other potential friction at the meeting could come from Turkey, which opposes plans to hold a referendum sometime this year on whether the northern oil hub of Kirkuk will remain in Arab-dominated territory or shift to the semiautonomous Kurdish zone.

Turkish officials fear that oil riches for the Kurds could stir separatist sentiments and spill over into Kurdish areas in Turkey.

One of the main extremist factions, the al-Qaida-linked Islamic State of Iraq, posted a statement on an Islamic Web site denouncing "the meeting of the hypocrites and the agents" and said it seeks to "extinguish the flame of the blessed jihad."

"All the delegates are united by one thing: the fear of a prolonged civil war in Iraq. It would hurt them each in different ways," said Abdel-Moneim Said, director of Al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies in Cairo. "Fear is the one thing bringing them all together."


Associated Press reporter Nasser Karimi in Tehran contributed to this report.


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