U.S. and Iran hold rare direct talks
By SCHEHEREZADE FARAMARZI, Associated Press Writer 50
BAGHDAD - U.S. and Iranian envoys spoke directly about
Iraq's perilous security situation on Saturday in rare
one-on-one talks that could help ease their nearly
28-year diplomatic freeze.
Iraq's prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki, opened the
one-day meeting of Iraq's neighbors, the United States
and others with an appeal for international help to
sever networks aiding extremists, warning that Iraq's
growing sectarian bloodshed could spill across the
The U.S. ambassador to Iraq, Zalmay Khalilzad, said he
exchanged views with Iranian delegation "directly and
in the presence of others" at the meeting, which
included the five permanent members of the U.N.
Khalilzad declined to give details of the contacts
calling them only "constructive and businesslike and
problem-solving" but noted that he raised U.S.
assertions that Shiite militias receive weapons and
assistance across the border from Iran.
Khalilzad called it a "first step."
"The discussions were limited and focused on Iraq and
I don't want to speculate after that," he said. The
United States broke off ties with Iran after militants
occupied the American Embassy in Tehran in the wake of
the 1979 Islamic Revolution.
Khalilzad also urged nations bordering Iraq which
Syria and Iran to expand assistance to al-Maliki's
government, saying "the future of Iraq and the Middle
East is the defining issue of our time."
For Iran, opening more direct contacts with the United
States 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
contain Shiite militias.
Iraq's foreign minister, Hoshyar Zebari, said the
participants at the meeting agreed to take part in
future groups to study ways to bolster Iraq's
security, assist displaced people and improve fuel
distribution and sales in one of OPEC's former
"(Iraq) needs support in this battle that not only
threatens Iraq but will spill over to all countries in
the region," al-Maliki said shortly before mortar
shells landed near the conference site and a car bomb
exploded in a Shiite stronghold across the city.
Al-Maliki urged for help in stopping financial
support, weapon pipelines and "religious cover" for
the relentless attacks of car bombings, killings and
other attacks that have pit Iraq's Sunnis against
The delegates proposed an "expanded" follow-up
meeting, which could include the G-8 nations and
others, in Istanbul, Turkey, next month. Iraqi
officials, however, say they want the next meeting to
take place again in Baghdad.
The meeting also gives a forum to air a wide range of
views and concerns including U.S. accusations of
weapons smuggling from Iran and Syria, and Arab
demands for greater political power for Iraq's Sunnis.
Security was extremely tight as envoys gathered in
Iraq's Foreign Ministry, which is outside the heavily
protected Green Zone. Shortly after the meeting began,
at least two mortar shells hit near the Foreign
Ministry. There were no casualties.
Al-Maliki said "the terrorism that kills innocents" in
Iraq comes from the same root as terrorists attacks
around the world since Sept. 11, 2001, in a reference
to groups inspired by al-Qaida.
He also delivered an apparent warning to Syria and
Iran to stay away from using Iraq as a proxy
battleground for fights against the United States.
"Iraq does not accept that its territories and cities
become a field where regional and international
disputes are settled," he said.
Khalilzad did not specifically mention Iran in
statements to delegates, but he offered indirect
messages that the United States acknowledges the
country's growing influence in the region.
"The U.S. seeks an Iraq that is at peace with its
neighbors; and neighbors that are at peace with Iraq,"
he said, according to a text distributed by the U.S.
But he also reasserted 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
Iran has denounced the U.S. military presence even
though it toppled their old foe Saddam Hussein. 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
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 Iran rejects.
Khalilzad appeared to address Iran's complaints by
saying U.S.-led troops do not "have anyone in
detention who is a diplomat."
The showdown over Iran's nuclear program also lurks
behind any attempt to ease the nearly 28-year
diplomatic freeze with the United States. There have
been other chances in the past for one-on-one dialogue
between the United States and Iran, but rarely with
Other tensions issues were part of the meeting.
The Arab League 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 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.
"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.