In Shift, U.S., Iran Meet On Iraq

By Sudarsan Raghavan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Sunday, March 11, 2007

BAGHDAD, March 10 -- After months of trading accusations, U.S. and Iranian officials sat in the same room Saturday at a much-anticipated regional conference on finding ways to end Iraq's sectarian violence and prevent a wider conflict.

Officials described the meeting as a constructive step, but it yielded few concrete answers to Iraq's deep-rooted problems and did little to bridge the ideological divide between the United States and Iran.

While the meeting was underway at the Foreign Ministry building, two mortars landed nearby with a sharp cracking sound. The blasts rattled windows and sent plumes of smoke into the air. No one was injured, but the attack served as a reminder of the country's tenuous security landscape.

Inside the building, the United States and Iran -- Iraq's two most powerful allies -- found plenty to disagree on, even though they expressed a common interest in stabilizing Iraq. U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad said Iraq's neighbors favored holding a second regional meeting next month in Istanbul. Abbas Araghchi, the head of the Iranian delegation, said it should be in Baghdad.

The Iranians accused the Americans of "kidnapping" six Iranian diplomats in Iraq. Khalilzad replied that coalition forces were not holding any diplomats.

Khalilzad said he had spoken to the Iranians "directly and in the presence of others." But Araghchi said: "We didn't have any direct contact. If the Americans are interested, there is a proper channel for that."

Khalilzad described the talks as "constructive, businesslike" and "problem-solving."

But by evening, the verbal volleys had resumed.

"Unfortunately, the Americans are suffering from intelligence failure," Araghchi said. "They have made so many mistakes in Iraq . . . so many wrong policies because of false information and intelligence they had at the beginning. We hope they don't repeat their previous mistakes."

Araghchi said he had told the American delegation that Iran wanted a timetable for the withdrawal of all foreign forces in Iraq. "We think the presence of foreign soldiers cannot help the security of Iraq in the long term," he said.

Saturday's conference, which included countries neighboring Iraq, the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council and three international groups, highlighted the immense challenges the country faces as it struggles to stabilize. Even as its neighbors seek to help, suspicions, diplomatic squabbling and geopolitics are complicating Iraq's attempts to forge peace.

An hour before the mortar attack, a car bomb killed at least 10 people and injured 52 on the outskirts of the Shiite militia stronghold of Sadr City, said Brig. Qasim Atta, an Iraqi military spokesman. In a statement, U.S. military officials credited Iraqi soldiers for stopping the vehicle at a checkpoint before it could enter Sadr City. At least six of those killed were Iraqi police officers, the statement said.

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