Reuters: The United States on Thursday sent its clearest signal yet it is open to bilateral talks with Iran and Syria by saying it will not rebuff them if they wish to discuss stabilizing Iraq at a regional meeting this weekend. By Arshad Mohammed
WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The United States on Thursday sent its clearest signal yet it is open to bilateral talks with Iran and Syria by saying it will not rebuff them if they wish to discuss stabilizing Iraq at a regional meeting this weekend.
“If we are approached over orange juice by the Syrians or the Iranians to discuss an Iraq-related issue that is germane to this topic — stable, secure, peaceful, democratic Iraq — we are not going to turn and walk away,” David Satterfield, the State Department’s Iraq coordinator, told reporters.
He said whether or not such talks were held would depend in part on the Syrian and Iranian stance at the Saturday conference in Baghdad, which will gather Iraq’s neighbors as well as the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council — Britain, China, France, Russia and the United States.
The United States accuses Iran and Syria of fomenting the insurgency in Iraq, where violence rages four years after U.S.-led forces invaded the country to topple former dictator Saddam Hussein.
Washington has accused Iranian elements of providing sophisticated roadside bombs used against the roughly 140,000 U.S. forces in Iraq. It accuses Syria of allowing militants to enter Iraq and harboring Baathists who support the insurgency.
Iran and Syria both deny fueling the violence in Iraq.
The United States, which has no diplomatic relations with Iran, has had contacts with Iranian officials in group settings — including as recently as September — but has resisted bilateral talks.
It has offered to talk to Iran if Tehran first suspends its uranium enrichment, a process that can produce fuel for power plans or for atomic bombs. Iran has so far refused to do that and says its nuclear program is for peaceful purposes.
The United States has diplomatic relations with Syria but withdrew its ambassador to Damascus in early 2005 and has not had high-level contacts for the past two years.
Saturday’s talks will provide an opportunity for bilateral talks between the United States and both countries.
INVITATION TO IRAN, SYRIA?
In another sign it is reaching out to Syria about Iraq, U.S. Assistant Secretary of State Ellen Sauerbrey left Washington on Thursday for talks in Syria as well as Jordan and Egypt about the plight of the estimated 2 million Iraqis who have fled the country since the March 2003 U.S.-led invasion.
Satterfield, who will attend the neighbors’ conference along with outgoing U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Zalmay Khalilzad, would not say definitively whether U.S. officials would engage with the Iranians or the Syrians in bilateral talks at the conference.
If there are such talks, he said, “Our script, as you put it, is to make clear … that there are real concerns about behaviors on the part of both of those states which are contributory to violence and terror within Iraq.”
Asked what Washington wanted them to do, he said, “No arms crossing its border, no contributions to violence, whether that violence is directed against coalition forces or innocent Iraqis, a halt to … training for elements in Iraq who are engaged in fomenting or conducting acts of violence.”
Saying the United States would raise those issues in the group talks, Satterfield said he hoped the meeting would lead to more diplomatic, economic and security support for Iraq from its neighbors, including debt relief from Gulf states.
Jon Alterman, a Middle East analyst at the CSIS think tank in Washington, said Satterfield’s comments suggested the United States was all but asking Iran and Syria to make an overture.
“It’s … an invitation to the Syrians and to the Iranians to raise issues with the United States,” he said, adding he would expect informal contacts among U.S., Iranian and Syrian officials at the meeting and possibly ongoing contacts through working groups set up through the conference.