Bloomberg: Delegates from Iran and the U.S. blamed each other for the conflict in Iraq at a conference in Baghdad aimed at forging international cooperation on steps to end the killings and attacks in the country. By Daniel Williams
March 11 (Bloomberg) — Delegates from Iran and the U.S. blamed each other for the conflict in Iraq at a conference in Baghdad aimed at forging international cooperation on steps to end the killings and attacks in the country.
The one-day meeting, which included representatives of 14 governments and three multinational organizations, provided an unusual opportunity for the U.S. to discuss Iraqi violence directly with two Middle East adversaries: Syria and Iran.
Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad said that Iraq’s neighbors must “halt the flow of fighters, weapons and other lethal support to militias and other armed groups.” Asked by reporters yesterday if he had addressed these issues with the Iranians, the U.S. ambassador said, “I did raise these concerns.”
Iran’s Abbas Araqchi, a deputy foreign minister, said at a news conference that followed Khalilzad’s yesterday that U.S. accusations that Iran was supporting Shiite Muslim militias in Iraq are “false” and the presence of U.S. troops and those of other nations is fueling the violence.
“We think the presence of foreign forces in Iraq can not help the security,” the Iranian said. “The presence of foreign forces justifies violence and violence is used to justify the presence of foreign forces.”
Since the 2003 U.S.-led invasion, Iraq has experienced a violent uprising by Sunni Muslims, many of whom felt dispossessed after the overthrow of dictator Saddam Hussein, who was also a Sunni. During the past year, increasing sectarian violence between Sunnis and Shiite Muslims, whose leaders dominate the new government, has raised the threat of all-out civil war.
The U.S., which has more than 140,000 soldiers in Iraq, is counting on a wave of military reinforcements and a crackdown on militias in Baghdad to increase security and permit an eventual draw-down of forces. President George W. Bush earlier this year announced plans to deploy 21,500 more combat troops to help secure the capital and battle terrorists in al-Anbar province.
The Bush administration has said Shiite-dominated Iran is fostering Shiite attacks on Sunnis. The U.S. also says it suspects the Islamic republic is trying to develop nuclear weapons and extend its influence in the Middle East.
The exchanges of blame for Iraq’s strife took place at the table with all the other delegates present, said Iraqi foreign minister Hoshyar Zebari. There were no private meetings between American delegates and either the Syrians or Iranians, he said. Khalilzad said on NBC’s “Meet the Press” program, aired today, that there were “no direct bilateral substantive talks other than a shaking hands” with the Iranians.
Zebari said today on CNN that yesterday’s meeting was “an ice-breaking attempt” and that he urged those present “not to turn Iraq into a battlefield for settling scores with the United States or any other countries at our cost.”
Zebari said he also told delegates “that it’s in your interest to see a stable, prosperous Iraq living next door to you.” Representatives of the United Nations, the Arab League and the Organization of Islamic Conference attended, as well as diplomats from Bahrain, China, Egypt, France, Iran, Jordan, Kuwait, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Turkey, the U.K. and U.S.
After 10 hours of talks, the group agreed in principle to hold another gathering, though they did not specify the place or date. Turkey offered to hold the next meeting, which foreign ministers would attend, in Istanbul in April. Three working groups — on security, refugees and oil and electricity — were formed, Khalilzad said on NBC.
“As a first step, it was a good meeting,” Khalilzad said on “Meet the Press.” Of the Iranians, he said, “we will be monitoring their behavior.”
The U.S. severed diplomatic ties with Iran after the 1979 seizure by militants of the U.S. embassy in Tehran, and hasn’t had an ambassador in Damascus since Feb. 15, 2005. The U.S. withdrew its ambassador to Syria, Margaret Scobey, after the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri. The Bush administration blamed Syria for the killing as well as for letting terrorists cross its frontier into Iraq.
Khalilzad said he raised the border infiltration issue with the Syrians. In the past, the Syrian government of President Bashar al-Assad said that his police and military try to disrupt cross-border infiltration and that the Americans are not doing enough on the Iraqi side of the frontier.
Iraq’s Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki opened the conference with an appeal to Iraq’s “neighbors” to stop supporting terrorists and “illegal” militias. Maliki didn’t criticize any country by name, saying Iraq “does not allow itself to intrude on others’ affairs or its territory to be a launching pad for attacks against others.”
Officials in both Syria and Iran have expressed suspicions that once the U.S. is finished in Iraq, it would invade either or both countries.
Baghdad was under curfew during the conference and the streets were largely empty. About two hours into the meeting, there were two explosions near the foreign ministry compound, where the conference was held.
“This is very normal. It happens all the time.” Zebari said he told the delegates, interrupting his speech. “I’m surprised there were not more attacks,” Zebari said. There were no reports of injuries or damage from the explosions.
Separately, a suicide car bomber killed 26 people at an army checkpoint yesterday, just three kilometers (two miles) from where the foreign envoys were holding the peace talks, Agence France-Presse reported, citing a security official.
Today a suicide bomber killed at least 32 people and wounded 24 others by ramming a truck carrying about 70 Shiite Muslim pilgrims, the Associated Press reported.
The pilgrims were returning from Karbala in southern Iraq, where they had been marking the end of 40 days of mourning for the 7th Century battlefield death of the prophet Muhammad’s grandson, whom they consider the true heir of Islam, AP said.
Attacks on other convoys killed at least five people in Baghdad, while three guards died in northern Iraq when a suicide bomber attacked the offices of Iraq’s biggest Sunni Muslim party, the news service said.