By Sudarsan Raghavan
Washington Post Foreign Service
Friday, February 15, 2008
BAGHDAD, Feb. 14 -- Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad will travel to Iraq next month in the first such visit by a leader of the Islamic Republic, Iraqi officials said Thursday, adding that Iran had postponed a fourth round of talks with the United States to discuss Iraq's security.
Invited by Iraqi President Jalal Talabani, Ahmadinejad is scheduled to arrive March 2 for a visit of two to three days to discuss bilateral relations, the officials said. He will also meet with Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.
The two neighbors fought an intense eight-year conflict in the 1980s during the rule of Saddam Hussein. But the ascent of a Shiite-dominated government in Iraq after the 2003 U.S.-led invasion ushered in a new era of friendship with overwhelmingly Shiite Iran.
The United States and Iran set aside their own animosities and held three rounds of talks to discuss ways to improve Iraq's security. But on Thursday, Iran postponed the next session for the fourth time, Iranian and Iraqi officials said.
"These negotiations have been postponed, not canceled," said a diplomat at the Iranian Embassy in Baghdad. "We believe these negotiations should continue, but we postponed them for technical problems."
The diplomat declined to elaborate but said he expected the talks to occur "in the near future."
But a U.S. Embassy spokeswoman said Iran seemed increasingly unwilling to meet for the discussions, which had been scheduled for Friday.
"We are happy to sit down for the talks, but it is increasingly clear Iran is not," said Mirembe Nantongo. "We've been ready to participate for weeks." The Iraqi government, she added, informed the U.S. Embassy of the postponement.
Iraqi government spokesman Ali al-Dabbagh said Iranian officials did not provide a reason for the postponement. "The Iranians just told us that they are not coming on Friday," Dabbagh said. "We've been informed that it is a matter of a few more days."
Last May, the United States and Iran broke a 27-year-old diplomatic freeze when U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Ryan C. Crocker met with his Iranian counterpart, Hassan Kazemi Qomi. Those and more recent discussions have centered on U.S. allegations that Iran is providing weapons and training to Shiite militias in Iraq, charges the Iranians have denied.
Ahmadinejad is scheduled to visit the southern Shiite holy cities of Karbala and Najaf, Dabbagh said. Among other issues, the two neighbors are slated to discuss joint projects, mostly along their 900-mile-long border, including electricity stations and oil fields, Dabbagh said.
Dabbagh said Iraq would not conduct its foreign relations in the shadow of the United States. "We are a sovereign country. Our good relationship with Iran will help everybody in the region," he said.
In the Baghdad district of Sadr City, the stronghold of Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, a car bomb detonated in a crowded market Thursday, killing seven people and wounding 36, police said.
West of the northern city of Kirkuk, gunmen killed a member of the U.S.-backed Sunni Awakening forces, the latest in a spate of attacks against the fighters, widely credited with helping to decrease violence in Iraq.
Special correspondents Zaid Sabah and Naseer Nouri in Baghdad, Muhanned Saif Aldin in Tikrit and other Washington Post staff in Iraq contributed to this report.