News On Iran & Its NeighboursIraqU.S. and Iran hold rare direct talks

U.S. and Iran hold rare direct talks


AP: U.S. and Iranian envoys spoke directly to each other about how to end Iraq’s violence, meeting at an international conference in Baghdad and opening limited but potentially significant contacts that could ease their nearly 28-year diplomatic freeze. Associated Press


Associated Press Writer

BAGHDAD (AP) – U.S. and Iranian envoys spoke directly to each other about how to end Iraq’s violence, meeting at an international conference in Baghdad and opening limited but potentially significant contacts that could ease their nearly 28-year diplomatic freeze.

The envoys did not meet privately, and discussions were confined to one session during the conference on Iraq’s stability, but the conctact appeared to offer room for further interaction between the two nations – which find themselves increasingly drawn toward common issues in Iraq as the nation’s most influential allies.

The U.S. ambassador to Iraq, Zalmay Khalilzad, said he exchanged views with Iranian delegates “directly and in the presence of others” at the gathering led by Iraq’s neighbors and the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council.

He 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 chief Iranian envoy, Abbas Araghchi, said he restated his country’s demands for a clear timetable for the withdrawal of U.S.-led forces, which he insisted have made Iraq a magnet for extremists from across the Muslim world.

“Violence in Iraq is good for no country in the region,” said Araghchi, deputy foreign minister for legal and international affairs, at a post-meeting news conference.

Araghchi said he did not meet privately with Khalilzad, but that all dialogue “was within the framework of the meeting” – which he said had “very good interaction by all the delegations.”

Khalilzad, too, 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.

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 help contain Shiite militias.

It was not the first exchange between Iran and the United States since ties were broken, but the Baghdad dialogue set itself apart because it offered room for deeper and more complex talks in the future regarding Iraq.

In the late 1990s, U.S. and Iranian envoys were part of an eight-nation group studying Afghanistan’s troubles under the Taliban, and both nations took part in meetings to establish an interim Afghan government after the Taliban’s fall in 2001.

In 2000, a four-member U.S. congressional delegation met with Iran’s then parliament speaker, Mehdi Karroubi, and others for informal talks during a worldwide gathering of lawmakers in New York.

Iraq’s foreign minister, Hoshyar Zebari, told reporters there were “direct exchanges and meetings and discussions” between the U.S. and Iranian delegation.

He also 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.

Zebari did not say whether Iran and the United States could join in these smaller “tactical committees.”

But Araghchi, the Iranian envoy, insisted that the working groups should include only Iraq’s neighbors and could consult with “countries who are players in the region” – an apparent reference to the United States.

Iraq’s prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki, opened the meeting with an appeal for international help to sever networks aiding extremists and warned that Iraq’s growing sectarian bloodshed could spill across the Middle East.

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) 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 pitted 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 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.

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.

Iran has strongly 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 Tehran 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 Iranian envoy Araghchi complained the officials were “kidnapped” by U.S. forces and were members of the diplomatic staff.

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

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