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Rice has no plans to meet Iranian at conference on Iraq


ImageAFP: US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said Thursday she had no plans to meet Iranian officials at an international conference in Kuwait next week aimed at stabilizing and developing Iraq.

ImageWASHINGTON (AFP) — US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said Thursday she had no plans to meet Iranian officials at an international conference in Kuwait next week aimed at stabilizing and developing Iraq.

Rice also said Washington was still waiting for Saudi Arabia to send an ambassador to Baghdad as part of increased US efforts to involve Arabs more in rebuilding Iraq and helping "shield" it from Iran's "nefarious influences."

"No, I don't intend to meet the Iranians, that is not in the plan," Rice told a press conference ahead of the gathering in Kuwait scheduled for Tuesday.

"Let me just say, the Iranians will be at the meeting. I'm not trying to suggest they won't be. But, no, I don't have any plans to meet them," Rice said.

The conference, which was held previously in Egypt and Turkey, will be attended by Iraq's neighbors, UN Security Council permanent members including the United States and other Group of Eight developed nations.

Iran, which is vehemently opposed to the US military presence in Iraq, said it will attend the meeting, though it has not made clear at what level.

During the meeting in Istanbul last year, there were informal encounters between the Iranian foreign minister and Rice.

There was no sign Saudi Arabia will reopen its embassy in Baghdad during talks next week.

She recalled that Prince Saud al-Faisal, the Saudi foreign minister, had said his government was prepared to send an ambassador back to Iraq.

"And we are continuing to await the Saudi naming of an ambassador, and then to see what arrangements they can make," Rice said.

Asked if she expected an announcement at the talks next week, which also involve meetings in Bahrain on Monday with Saudi Arabia and the Gulf Arab states, Rice said: "No."

She acknowledged that the Sunni-led Arab governments, if they boosted their diplomatic presence in Baghdad, could help promote reconciliation between Iraq's Sunni minority and new Shiite-led government

But she said "I think the Iraqis are doing pretty well, frankly" in reconciling Sunni and Shiite Muslim Arabs, especially when compared to other states in the region.

"The challenge is to find a place where this is a more open question and where people are actually working harder at it than in Iraq — I mean, in the region," she said.

Saudi Arabia, Kuwait and Bahrain, which are led by Sunnis, have large Shiite Muslim populations.

"To the degree that their neighbors can help encourage Sunnis to participate fully in the political process, a democratic political process, I think that is a good thing," Rice said.

"To the degree that they can help with reconstruction or humanitarian assistance, that is a good thing," she added.

"The thing that would most help Iraq right now from its neighbors is debt relief," she said.

When asked if a large Arab diplomatic presence in Baghdad could serve as a counterweight to non-Arab Shiite Iran, she replied: "What they need to do is confirm and work for Iraq's Arab identity.

"And so Iraq should be at — fully reincorporated into the Arab world. I think that in and of itself will begin to shield from influences of Iran that are nefarious influences," Rice added.

"Iran is a neighbor, it's going to have influence. But Iraq is first and foremost an Arab state, it's a state in which Iraqi nationalism is very strong, and the neighbors ought to be reinforcing that."

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