U.S., Iran Closer to Talks on Iraq
Concern About Tehran's Role in Country Reopens Channels

By Ellen Knickmeyer and William Branigin
Washington Post Foreign Service
Saturday, March 18, 2006

BAGHDAD, March 17 -- U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad said Friday that back-channel discussions were underway with Iran on resuming direct talks about Iraq that broke off shortly after the 2003 U.S.-led invasion, and he said the talks should be held in Baghdad.

Khalilzad said he would not describe the proposed talks as "negotiations" but as a chance to express concerns about what Washington and some in Iraq regard as Iran's alarming activities here.

"Iraqis will decide their own future," Khalilzad said, "but they have concerns about [Iranian] policy regarding Iraq."

The ambassador spoke after the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad issued a statement critical of Iran in response to remarks Thursday by the top Iranian national security official.

Saying that the embassy had taken note of remarks by Ali Larijani, secretary of Iran's Supreme National Security Council, the statement said: "The future of Iraq will not be decided by the United States, Iran or any other country. Iraqis will decide the future of Iraq. The United States is concerned about unhelpful Iranian activities in Iraq. These concerns are well known, and we have talked about them."

Khalilzad's comments came a day after Tehran offered to enter into talks with the United States aimed at stabilizing Iraq, following a request to do so by the Shiite Muslim political heavyweight Abdul Aziz al-Hakim, who spent years in self-imposed exile in Iran when Saddam Hussein ruled Iraq. Hakim's party, the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, and other members of the Shiite coalition that dominate Iraq's government are closely allied with Iran.

In Baghdad, Jalal al-Sagheer, a cleric and ally of Hakim's, hailed the "diplomatic victory." Sagheer rejected widespread accusations by Sunni Arabs in Iraq that Iran was promoting torture, illegal detention and extrajudicial killing by Shiite militiamen against Iraq's Sunni minority.

"In every case, the sectarian terrorism uses the Iran question as an excuse to slaughter us," Sagheer told worshipers during Friday prayers at Baghdad's Buratha mosque. "This is why we are working on this case and making many contacts to solve the problem between America and Iran, so the Iraqis will not be affected by any problem between them.

"It's not for a specific sect," Sagheer said. "It is for the fate of all Iraqis."

Meanwhile, U.S. and Iraqi troops searched house to house for insurgents for a second day in arid farmland east of Samarra. Forty-eight suspects had been detained, with 17 of them released, Maj. Tom Bryant, public affairs officers with the 3rd Brigade of the Army's 101st Airborne Division, told journalists flown to the area Friday.

Six weapons caches with a total of about 300 rockets, mortar rounds and other ordnance had been found by late Friday, "a typical number" for weapons caches discovered in the area, said Maj. John Calahan, another public affairs officer with the 3rd Brigade. U.S. and Iraqi forces had made "no contact whatsoever," Calahan added, meaning no shots had been fired or resistance encountered.

The 600 to 800 Iraqi police commandos in the U.S.-Iraqi force deployed Thursday had returned to normal duties by midday Friday, U.S. authorities said.

Roughly 50 Chinook and Black Hawk helicopters had transported the Iraqi and U.S. forces from bases in the surrounding area. The operation, which is continuing, has been good for building the confidence of Iraqi forces and for showing insurgents that the Iraqis, with the help of U.S. air assets, can go anywhere, U.S. officials said.

U.S. Army Lt. Gen. Peter Chiarelli, the commanding general of Multinational Corps-Iraq, said that by the end of this summer Iraqi units will take charge in 75 percent of the country's territory, compared with less than 50 percent now. He did not specify whether these areas would include the most violent or populous parts. Other U.S. commanders have said that Iraqi police and army units are now responsible for security in about 60 percent of Baghdad.

Chiarelli, briefing Pentagon reporters via teleconference from Iraq, said the country was closer to civil war than at any time since the U.S. invasion three years ago, but added that such an eventuality remained "a long ways away."

Branigin reported from Washington. Staff writer Ann Scott Tyson in Washington and special correspondent Naseer Nouri in Baghdad contributed to this report.

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