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U.S. and Iran hold rare direct talks

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  • Greg Cannon
    http://news.yahoo.com/s/ap/20070310/ap_on_re_mi_ea/iraq_conference U.S. and Iran hold rare direct talks By SCHEHEREZADE FARAMARZI, Associated Press Writer 50
    Message 1 of 1 , Mar 10, 2007
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      http://news.yahoo.com/s/ap/20070310/ap_on_re_mi_ea/iraq_conference

      U.S. and Iran hold rare direct talks

      By SCHEHEREZADE FARAMARZI, Associated Press Writer 50
      minutes ago

      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
      Middle East.

      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.
      Security Council.

      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
      include
      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
      heavyweights.

      "(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
      majority Shiites.

      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.
      Embassy.

      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
      allegations.

      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
      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 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
      such promise.

      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.
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