AFP: Iran and the United States dashed hopes of a major breakthrough at an international conference convened to stabilise war-torn Iraq when they held only mid-level talks on Friday. by Mona Salem
SHARM EL-SHEIKH, Egypt, May 4, 2007 (AFP) – Iran and the United States dashed hopes of a major breakthrough at an international conference convened to stabilise war-torn Iraq when they held only mid-level talks on Friday.
The two-day meeting, however, wrapped up after a marked improvement in Washington’s strained relations with Iran’s traditional Syrian allies, signalling an apparent shift of US policy in the region.
Speculation had mounted since Thursday’s start of the conference in the Egyptian resort of Sharm el-Sheikh that US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice could hold historic talks with her Iranian counterpart Manouchehr Mottaki.
But at a meeting designed to enhance international cooperation on Iraqi security, Mottaki described US troops as “terrorists” and lashed out at Washington over the continued detention of Iranian officials seized in January.
“To create a safe haven for those terrorists who try to turn Iraqi territory into a base for attacking Iraq’s neighbours should be condemned,” the Iranian foreign minister said.
“Mr Mottaki was referring to countries which, like the United States, carry out acts of terrorism in Iraq,” a spokesman for the Iranian delegation at the conference told AFP.
“When the United States arrests five Iranian diplomats in Iraq, it is an act of terrorism,” he said on condition of anonymity.
On January 11, US troops dropped from helicopters and stormed an Iranian liaison office in Arbil, the capital of the northern Iraqi Kurdistan region, and detained six employees, one of whom was later released.
The United States has said the men had links to Iran’s elite Revolutionary Guards and none of them held diplomatic passports.
The US commander in Iraq, General David Petraeus, told reporters at the Pentagon that American forces were in fact holding seven Iranians but did not elaborate where and when the other two were arrested.
US Ambassador to Iraq Ryan Crocker said he met a deputy foreign minister of Iran but played down the event. “It was very limited, very short and it was on Iraq,” he told reporters.
Rice for her part pointed out that a meeting at the same level had already taken place in March while Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari was more upbeat, stressing that the meeting was a “positive sign”.
Hopes of the highest-level direct talks between Iran and the United States since the foes broke off ties in 1980 soured when Mottaki walked out of a dinner attended by Rice on Thursday.
Mottaki claimed he was offended by the revealing dress the venue’s Russian violinist was wearing, said US officials, who suggested his discomfort may have had more to do with a table layout that left him directly facing Rice.
The two officials had exchanged polite conversation at a lunch earlier Thursday, fueling speculation of further talks.
In contrast, Rice held her administration’s highest-level talks with Syria in two years on Thursday.
Rice met with Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Muallem for talks during which she urged him to stem what she called the flow of foreign fighters crossing into Iraq to join groups combating US troops and the Shiite-led government.
“This is not a favour to the US, it is an opportunity to help stabilise Iraq and therefore serve the neighbourhood,” she said after the meeting.
“It was an important conversation, I’m very glad we had the opportunity,” Rice also said on Friday at a news conference before leaving for Washington.
The US military in Baghdad sent diverging messages on Syria and Iran, noting a reduction in the numbers of foreign fighters crossing from Syria and announcing the arrest of militants smuggling bombs from Iran.
The final statement on Friday’s security meeting reaffirmed all participants’ desire to “combat terrorist activities and prevent the use of their territory for supplying, organising and launching terrorist operations.”
But at a news conference after the meetings, Mottaki said it was the “failure of US policies” that had wreaked havoc in Iraq.
“We believe the US should take a hard look to review policies in the region. The failure in Afghanistan, in Iraq…, these things show failure of policies,” he told reporters.
“(The US) will see us on their side if they work for peace and stability in Iraq,” he said.
The opening day of the conference won Iraq pledges amounting to 30 billion dollars in debt relief and an internationally-endorsed roadmap to achieve political and economic stability in five years.