By John Ward Anderson
Washington Post Foreign Service
Tuesday, May 29, 2007
BAGHDAD, May 28 -- The United States and Iran held their first official high-level, face-to-face talks in almost 30 years Monday to discuss the deteriorating security situation in Iraq, and officials emerged generally upbeat about the renewed dialogue, suggesting additional meetings were likely.
In briefings to reporters afterward, the chief negotiators -- U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Ryan C. Crocker and Iran's ambassador to Baghdad, Hassan Kazemi Qomi -- said the talks focused solely on Iraq and did not stray into the contentious areas of Iran's nuclear program or the recent detentions of four Iranian American citizens by Tehran.
Underscoring the crux of the security problem here, a suicide bomber detonated a truck loaded with explosives at one of Iraq's most revered Sunni shrines, the Abdul Qadir al-Gailani mosque in central Baghdad, shortly before talks concluded. The blast killed at least 19 people and wounded 69, raising fears of a retaliatory cycle of sectarian bloodshed similar to what happened last year when a Shiite shrine was bombed in Samarra. More than 1,000 people were killed in sectarian violence following the Samarra mosque attack in February 2006.
"This mosque for centuries has been a refuge for all Iraqis -- here we call for the unity of the people and brotherhood," the Sunni mosque's imam, Mahmoud Essawi, said after Monday's blast. "I'm calling on Iraqis not to be drawn into the strife." It was the deadliest attack in a day in which more than 75 people were killed across the country by mortar strikes, roadside bombs, suicide attacks and other violence.
Monday's four-hour meeting between diplomats from the United States and Iran yielded no breakthroughs, but comments by Crocker and Qomi suggested that the two countries shared surprisingly similar assessments of the security problems facing Iraq, if not the causes. Both men characterized the meeting as positive.
"The two sides dealt with the issues in a very frank and transparent and clear way," Qomi told reporters in a news conference at the Iranian Embassy in Baghdad. "The views of both sides were unified and identical on the question of the security issue."
Crocker said, "There was pretty good congruence right down the line -- support for a secure, stable, democratic, federal Iraq, in control of its own security, at peace with its neighbors." But then the two sides parted ways, he said.
"This is about actions, not just principles, and I laid out to the Iranians direct, specific concerns about their behavior in Iraq and their support for militias that are fighting Iraqi and coalition forces," he said. Crocker said he did not present a dossier of evidence, but he impressed upon his Iranian counterpart that the United States was "looking for results" and wanted "a change in Iranian behavior."
He said Qomi did not respond to the comments.
At his news conference, Qomi said allegations that Iran is supplying insurgents with weapons, munitions and training have been denied by Iran on numerous occasions and "don't prove anything."
In what may be one of the more significant ideas raised at the meeting, Qomi said that Iran had proposed the creation of a special security committee composed of Iranian, U.S. and Iraqi officials that could deal with all U.S. allegations about Iranian activities in Iraq. Such a committee could also offer a framework for future meetings, Qomi said.
Crocker said he would forward the proposal to Washington, adding, "My comment at the time was that [the proposed committee] sounded very much like the meeting we were sitting in.
"Their main focus was on the mechanisms, if you will, and principles, rather than the detailed security substance that we need to see improvement on," Crocker said.
Both sides said the talks were instigated by Iraq's prime minister, Nouri al-Maliki, and were held in his office. Maliki welcomed the ambassadors, who shook hands, and then escorted them into a conference room. The prime minister did not attend the meeting; Iraq was represented at the session by national security adviser Mowaffak al-Rubaie.
The United States blames Iran for fueling much of the bloodshed and violence in Iraq by supplying weapons and munitions to Shiite and Sunni Muslim insurgents, who are conducting a deadly campaign against U.S. forces and their coalition partners, including the Iraqi security forces.
According to the Pentagon, 3,433 U.S. service members have been killed since the U.S.-led invasion in 2003, and 25,549 have been wounded. As many as 70,552 Iraqi civilians have died from war-related causes, according to Iraq Body Count, an antiwar group that monitors casualties here.
Iran says that the United States is an imperial power that has brought instability not only to Iraq but to the entire Middle East region through its occupation of Iraq and its pro-Israel policies. Iranian leaders have demanded that the United States announce a timetable for the withdrawal of the roughly 150,000 U.S. troops stationed here. But neither of those issues was raised explicitly at Monday's meeting, Crocker said.
Qomi asserted that "the effort to train and equip the Iraqi security forces had been inadequate to the challenges faced," according to Crocker, who said he responded that the United States had spent billions of dollars on the effort.
Qomi said his side stressed the suffering of Iraqi civilians and the need for better security. "The Islamic Republic of Iran offered to provide all kinds of support, such as consultations, rehabilitation training and provision of weapons to the Iraqi forces," he said.
Few analysts expected any major announcements from today's meeting, but there were hopes that, at a minimum, the talks could open a new era of dialogue that might lead to greater stability in Iraq and more normal relations between Iran and the United States.
Qomi called the meeting "the first step in the process of negotiations between the two sides." Crocker was more reticent, saying that the Iraqi government is expected to issue an invitation to more talks "in the near future" and that the United States will consider it. Asked if he was optimistic that direct dialogue would lead to better relations with Iran, he said, "Whether that will produce results is up to them."
The United States and Iran have not had diplomatic relations since the country's 1979 Islamic Revolution, when followers of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini overthrew the U.S.-backed shah of Iran and established an Islamic state. Khomeini supporters sacked the U.S. Embassy and held 52 Americans hostage for 444 days in an ordeal that deeply humiliated the administration of President Jimmy Carter and battered the American psyche.
The two countries have numerous complaints against each other, fueled by the ensuing years of hostility and suspicion. In the most contentious standoff, the United States accuses Tehran of secretly using its nuclear energy program to develop atomic weapons and is leading an international effort to force Tehran to stop enriching uranium. Iran claims that it has the right to develop peaceful nuclear technologies and says its nuclear program is strictly for electric power.
The United States is leading an effort in the U.N. Security Council to impose increasingly painful economic sanctions on Iran.
In an almost tit-for-tat escalation of tensions leading up to Monday's meeting, the United States has detained five Iranians in Iraq and accused them of supplying weapons to insurgents here, and Iran in recent weeks has detained or put under house arrest four U.S.-Iranian citizens. One has been accused of seeking to overthrow the government.
U.S. military officials have embarked on a concerted campaign to dismantle what they claim are secret Iranian networks responsible for smuggling weapons and munitions from Iran into Iraq. Over the weekend, Iran claimed it had discovered several U.S. spy networks in western, southwestern and central Iran.