Iraq hosts panel on violence

U.S., Iran clash at multination meeting meant to halt fighting

March 11, 2007|By Tina Susman | Tina Susman,Los Angeles Times

BAGHDAD, Iraq -- The first crashing sound came just after lunch, when mortars slammed into the street outside the building where U.S., Iranian and other officials were meeting here yesterday to discuss ways of ending Iraq's violence.

The next one came six hours later, when Iran's chief delegate stood at a lectern and ripped into U.S. policy in Iraq, clobbering hopes that the summit would prove an icebreaker in the two countries' chilly relations.

Yesterday's meeting, the first such gathering Iraq has hosted since the overthrow of Saddam Hussein four years ago, was intended to shore up support for Iraq, and on that front it appeared to have been a cordial but far-from-resounding success. Delegates from neighboring countries and elsewhere did not set a date for a second, higher-level gathering of foreign ministers and agreed only to establish working groups to focus on various issues.

But much of the attention was on the U.S.-Iranian sideshow, a critical element because of Washington's claim that Tehran is helping fuel Iraq's violence. Would the Iranian and U.S. delegates steal away for some private time? Would they be seated near each other during the talks? Would they commit to future get-togethers?

The answer to all was no, a message that sounded through the Foreign Ministry's cavernous interior as clearly as the lunchtime booms.

A total of 17 delegations attended the security meeting, including groups from all of Iraq's six neighbors - Iran, Syria, Jordan, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and Turkey - and from the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council. Also represented were the Arab League and the Organization of the Islamic Conference.

The guest list reflected the importance with which Iraq viewed the conference, but it also guaranteed tense moments, considering the political baggage that accompanied many delegations.

The United States accuses Iran's Shiite leaders of sending weapons to fighters in Iraq who are targeting U.S. troops. It accuses Syria of letting terrorists flow across its porous border into Iraq.

Iran, meanwhile, is at odds with the United Nations over its nuclear enrichment program, and Sunni-led states in the region are angry with the Iraqi government for not giving the country's Sunni minority more power.

Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, in his opening remarks, appeared to be angry at them all for putting his country in the middle of their squabbles.

Al-Maliki's opening statements seemed aimed at Iran and the United States, and at the Arab League, which last week said it would use the conference to demand that al-Maliki's Shiite-led government give minority Sunnis more power in government.

"Iraq does not allow itself to intrude on others' affairs, or its territory to be a launching pad for attacks against others. We ... expect to have the same stance from others," he said. The prime minister also demanded that states "refrain from having a share or an influence in the Iraqi state of affairs, by trying to induce a certain sect, nationality or party," a reference to the Arab League demand.

His comments seemed to set the tone for the meeting, which went on for several hours behind closed doors. Delegates sat at a long, rectangular table, with the U.S. ambassador to Iraq, Zalmay Khalilzad, seated at one end and Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari at the other, according to an Iranian journalist who was allowed into the room briefly to film his country's delegation. Iran's chief delegate, Abbas Araghchi, a deputy foreign minister, sat to the left of Zebari, and the group drank soft drinks while discussions went on, the journalist said.

Khalilzad used his opening remarks to issue veiled criticisms of Iran and Syria. He said Iraq's neighbors could only be considered allies of Iraq if they halted the flow of fighters, weapons "and other lethal support to militias and other illegal armed groups," a reference to Shiite militias and Sunni Arab insurgents.

U.S. officials have specifically accused Iran of smuggling sophisticated armor-piercing explosives blamed for the deaths of at least 170 of the more than 3,400 U.S.-led forces killed in Iraq.

Tina Susman writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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