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.
An hour after the mortar attack, Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki urged the country's neighbors in his opening remarks to stop financing attacks and funneling weapons and fighters across their borders.
Iraq "will not accept that its lands, cities and streets be an arena for inter-regional or regional-international disputes," Maliki said. "It does not accept by any means to be a theater for influence of any state or for regional or international power-sharing."
Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari said the countries to which Maliki was referring were all represented at the conference.
Many of Iraq's neighbors had pressing reasons to attend. Syria and Jordan are hosting large numbers of Iraqi refugees. Turkey, with its restive Kurdish minority, is worried about cross-border attacks by Iraqi Kurdish guerrillas. Saudi Arabia is concerned that the conflict could propel its Shiite minority to rise up, a reason analysts say the kingdom has done little to aid Iraq.
The interaction among delegates from the United States, Iran and Syria were closely watched by those attending the conference. The United States and Iraq have accused Syria of allowing insurgents to cross its borders and attack targets in Iraq, an allegation the Syrian government has denied.
Khalilzad, in a subsequent telephone interview with reporters, said U.S. officials had had brief discussions with the Syrians on Saturday. The Syrians "did not respond directly" to U.S. concerns but pledged to support Iraq in a statement issued at the meeting, Khalilzad said.
In recent months, the Bush administration has zeroed in on Iran, not only because of concerns about its nuclear ambitions but also on the premise that it is destabilizing Iraq. U.S. military officials have alleged that Iran is backing Shiite militias with financing and weapons, including sophisticated roadside bombs that have killed U.S. soldiers.
Iraq's Shiite-led government has expressed deep concerns about becoming a battleground for its two allies, both of whom have significant influence. "We don't want to pay any price for any problems between the two countries," said Ali Dabbagh, an Iraqi government spokesman.
Khalilzad said he discussed with the Iranians cross-border weapons transfers and "money, training, support for militias, and other illegal armed groups."
"Nobody was pounding the table," Khalilzad said. "The exchanges were quite, I would say, ordinary. There were frank and sometimes even jovial exchanges."
On that, Araghchi agreed.
"The meeting in general was constructive, taking place in a very good environment," he said. "But it doesn't mean we didn't raise our concerns about what's going on in Iraq."
Khalilzad said he was cautiously optimistic about his Iranian counterparts.
"They want the government to succeed, they want national reconciliation, they want a close to violence and terror," he said. "Those are good words, welcome words, but we will have to wait and see what happens on the ground."
By the end of the conference, the delegates had agreed to form three working groups composed of representatives from Iraq's neighbors and to hold a second regional meeting as early as next month. The three groups would look at such issues as security, refugees, and fuel and energy supplies, Zebari said.
Also Saturday, the Associated Press released a video made by insurgents purportedly showing a German woman and her son who were kidnapped in Iraq last month. The woman, who appears to be weeping in the video, said the kidnappers had declared that they would kill them if German troops were not withdrawn from Afghanistan.
Germany has confirmed that two of its citizens disappeared in Iraq last month but has not publicly identified them or disclosed what efforts were being made to secure their release.
Staff writer Ernesto Londoño and special correspondent K.I. Ibrahim in Baghdad and staff writer Karen DeYoung in Washington contributed to this report.