AP: Delegates from the U.S., the U.N. Security Council and Iraq’s neighbors – including Iran – gathered Saturday, with officials searching for common ground on efforts to stabilize Iraq and ease growing rifts in the region. Associated Press
By SCHEHEREZADE FARAMARZI
Associated Press Writer
BAGHDAD (AP) – Delegates from the U.S., the U.N. Security Council and Iraq’s neighbors – including Iran – gathered Saturday, with officials searching for common ground on efforts to stabilize Iraq and ease growing rifts in the region.
Iraq’s prime minister appealed to those in attendance to help cut off networks that aid the extremists tearing his country apart. He warned that Iraq’s growing sectarian bloodshed, if not checked, could spread across the Middle East.
“Iraqi has become a front-line battlefield,” Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki said at the conference. “(Iraq) needs support in this battle that not only threatens Iraq but will spill over to all countries in the region.”
Al-Maliki sought help in stopping financial support, the procurement of weapons and “religious cover” for the relentless attacks that pit Iraq’s Sunnis against the majority Shiites. He expressed hope the conference could be a “turning point in supporting the government in facing this huge danger.”
In addition to finding a way to calm violence in Iraq, the one-day gathering is also being seen as a prime opportunity for icebreaking overtures between Iran and the U.S., whose chief delegate left open the door for possible one-on-one exchanges about Iraq.
Security was extremely tight as envoys gathered in Iraq’s Foreign Ministry, which is outside the heavily protected Green Zone. Just as the meeting got under way, a loud blast was heard through central Baghdad. The cause of the explosion was not immediately clear.
The conference brings together Iraq’s six neighbors, the five permanent U.N. Security Council members and several Arab representatives. Its primary goal is to pave the way for a high-level meeting, possibly next month.
But it gives a forum to air a wide range of views and concerns including U.S. accusations of weapons smuggling from Iran and Arab demands for greater political power for Iraq’s Sunnis.
“We look for the assistance and the cooperation of our neighbors,” said Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari.
Before the meeting, Iraqi troops and police were put on high alert. U.S. soldiers with bomb-sniffing dogs combed hallways and rooms in the Ministry.
The meeting allows ample time for delegates to mingle and open informal contacts. All eyes will be on any attempts to bridge the nearly 28-year diplomatic estrangement between the United States and Iran.
The chief U.S. delegate, David Satterfield, said Thursday that “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 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 Friday 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 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 will not 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.”
Some average Iraqis have little hope that more international talks will end the relentless sectarian violence.
“If the Iraqis are not hand in hand, no conference can succeed. Four years have passed and many conferences have been held – every year, every week, every day – but all these were fruitless,” said Thamer Ali Hussein, a Shiite resident in Baghdad.
There have been other chances in the past for one-on-one dialogue between the United States and Iran, 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 is regarded as one of Iran’s leading diplomatic strategists on relations with the West.
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.
Other tensions are likely to surface.
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 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.
“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.