U.S.-Iran discussions called positive

Iraq security is topic as 2 nations hold first direct talks since 1980

May 29, 2007|By Alexandra Zavis | Alexandra Zavis,LOS ANGELES TIMES

BAGHDAD, Iraq -- As expected, there were no major breakthroughs yesterday as U.S. and Iranian diplomats held their first formal direct talks in more than a quarter of a century to discuss security in Iraq.

There was some progress, however. Iran proposed that a "trilateral mechanism" be established to handle discussions on ways to ease the conflict in Iraq.

Iraqi officials welcomed the suggestion but emphasized that any discussions had to include them, said government spokesman Ali Dubbagh, who was part of the Iraqi delegation headed by National Security Adviser Mowaffak al-Rubaie.

U.S. Ambassador Ryan Crocker was more circumspect.

"That would, of course, be a decision for Washington," Crocker said at a news briefing inside Baghdad's fortified Green Zone.

"My comment at the time was that that sounded very much like the meeting that we were sitting in," Crocker said in a separate conference call with journalists in Washington. "It was not apparent to me exactly what the distinction was between what they were proposing and what we were already doing."

At a news conference in the Iranian Embassy in Baghdad, Iranian Ambassador Hassan Kazemi-Qomi did not specify what he had in mind.

The talks, held at Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's office inside the Green Zone, marked a shift in the Bush administration's stance toward Iran.

The Bush administration initially rejected proposals by the Iranians and the bipartisan Iraq Study Group in Washington to open negotiations on security in Iraq. It has edged away from that stance in recent months.

Al-Maliki greeted the U.S. and Iranian ambassadors, who shook hands, and then led them into a conference room where their delegations sat across a long table from each other, with al-Maliki at the head, to exchange preliminary remarks.

The Iraqi leader then left, and the meeting continued in another room, with the three sides sitting at separate tables arranged in a triangle.

All parties involved described the meeting as positive. During four hours of talks, the negotiators tackled the issues "honestly and transparently," Kazemi-Qomi said.

Crocker, who speaks fluent Arabic, characterized the encounter as a "businesslike" discussion that alternated among English, Arabic and Farsi.

There was broad agreement on the principles governing U.S. and Iranian policy toward Iraq. Both sides stated their support for a secure, stable, democratic, federal Iraq that is in control of its own security and at peace with its neighbors, Crocker said at the news briefing.

And both sides reaffirmed their support for al-Maliki.

But Crocker said he told the Iranians that "this is about actions, not just principles," and that they must stop arming, equipping and training militias that are fighting U.S. and Iraqi forces.

The Iranians called the U.S. presence in Iraq an occupation and criticized as inadequate the United States' multibillion-dollar effort to rebuild Iraq's security forces, Crocker said.

The Iraqi government said it would invite the United States and Iran to meet again.

"We had a positive attitude regarding this suggestion," Kazemi-Qomi said.

Crocker said the United States would consider such an invitation but added, "The purpose of the meeting was not to discuss further meetings."

"I think we are going to want to wait and see not what is said next but what happens next on the ground, whether we start to see some indications of a change in Iranian behavior," he said.

The talks were narrowly focused on Iraq, not on the wider issues dividing the United States and Iran.

Washington has accused Iran of efforts to enrich uranium that are aimed at building weapons. Tehran has said that it needs the technology to produce energy.

Iran also fears that the United States might seek to oust the Iranian government, as it did in Iraq. And both sides have complaints about detainees, including five Iranians seized in Iraq this year and a number of Iranian-Americans apprehended in Iran in recent weeks.

The United States froze diplomatic relations with Iran in 1980 after militants seized the U.S. Embassy in Tehran. The Iranians held 52 Americans hostage for 444 days.

Alexandra Zavis writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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