U.S. and Iran hold rare direct talks

March 10, 2007 at 6:12 pm Leave a comment

Staff and agencies
10 March, 2007

By SCHEHEREZADE FARAMARZI, Associated Press Writer 1 minute 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.

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 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 .

“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.”

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.

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 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.

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.

“Iraq does not accept that its territories and cities become a field where regional and international disputes are settled,” he said.

“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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