Envoys gather for conference on Iraq

March 10, 2007|By New York Times News Service

BAGHDAD, Iraq -- In a symbolic victory for Iraq, representatives of neighboring countries and world powers are gathering here to discuss how they could help stabilize the troubled country.

The meeting, scheduled for today, will be a rare opportunity for Iran and the United States to sit at the same table. Syria, another frequent target of American animosity, will be there, too.

But at a practical level the meeting is most important for Iraq, a country teetering on the brink of chaos and in desperate need of help from all its neighbors.

"There is greater recognition now of the dangers of the serious situation in Iraq," said Hoshyar Zebari, Iraq's foreign minister. Speaking of his country's neighbors, he said: "If they don't do more - and so far they've been spectators, saying, `Let the Americans have it' - the consequence will be Iraq's failure. This would mean spillover, chaos, sectarianism, terrorism and drug trafficking."

"We expect some actions, not words, not a statement of solidarity and support," Zebari added.

The willingness of all of Iraq's neighbors to come to Baghdad, a city undertaking a large-scale military operation with the influx of thousands of U.S. and Iraqi troops, suggests that they have heard Zebari's message. He has been lobbying nonstop for the meeting since last summer, he said.

With representatives of 16 nations and organizations attending, it will be the largest meeting of foreign countries in Iraq since a summit meeting of Arab League members in March 1990, just months before the Iraqi invasion of Kuwait.

"The meeting reflects a recognition on the part of all players that they have no interest in Iraq falling apart, in its partition or in it disintegrating into a failed state," said Joost Hiltermann, director of the International Crisis Group's office in Amman, Jordan.

Weapons and fighters flow into the country primarily from Syria and Iran, while Jordan and Syria are bristling with nearly 2 million Iraqi refugees who have streamed over their borders. Saudi Arabia and Jordan, countries with overwhelmingly Sunni populations, are distressed about the growing influence of Iran, which is mostly Shiite, in Iraq and the region.

But the Sunni-majority countries may be partly to blame for that. After the overthrow of Saddam Hussein by U.S.-led forces in 2003, they were reluctant to express public support for Baghdad during the occupation that followed. Iran filled that vacuum.

"Iran was the first government to send a delegation to Iraq," Zebari said. "It was during the Governing Council days." The council was the U.S.-backed governing body formed in the early stages of the occupation.

He said most representatives were not arriving until later yesterday. The Iranians, however, arrived Thursday.

Zebari and other Iraqi officials said they hoped that the meeting would be a first step in persuading the United States and Iran, the two countries with the most influence in Iraq, to start working with each other. They have preferred to trade barbs, each with an eye to reminding the other of its ability to make life unpleasant.

"We hope Americans and Iranians can talk," said Deputy Prime Minister Barham Salih. "Talking is always useful. We do not want our country to be a card for other interests."

He added, "Iraq's stability should be the central issue."

Zebari said there would be rooms off the main meeting room where representatives of the two countries could talk privately. The framework of the meeting will be an opening speech by Iraq's prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki, and then a closed session in which each country will have an opportunity to comment. Lunch will be followed by another closed meeting of the entire group.

Officially, the meeting is at the level of deputy prime minister, with most countries sending their ambassadors to Iraq to represent them.

But several countries also are sending more senior officials, and Zebari said "high-level visitors" from several countries would come.

The U.S. delegation will include David Satterfield, the senior adviser on Iraq to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, and the U.S. ambassador to Iraq, Zalmay Khalilzad. The deputy foreign minister of Iran, Abbas Araghchi, will attend.

For Baghdad and Washington, a primary goal of the meeting is for Iraq to establish itself as an equal player with its neighbors. Most recently, Iran has treated it more as a client, and Iraq's relations with Syria have been frosty.

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