BAGHDAD: Delegates from Iran and the US on 11 March blamed each other for the conflict in Iraq at a conference in Baghdad aimed at forging international cooperation on steps to end the killings and attacks in the country.
The one-day meeting, which included representatives of 14 governments and three multi-national organizations, provided an unusual opportunity for the US to discuss Iraqi violence directly with two Middle East adversaries: Syria and Iran.
US Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad said that Iraq’s neighbours must “halt the flow of fighters, weapons and other lethal support to militias and other armed groups”. Asked by reporters if he had addressed these issues with the Iranians, he said, “I did raise these concerns.”
Iran’s Abbas Araqchi, a deputy foreign minister, said at a news conference that followed Khalilzad’s that US accusations that Iran was supporting Shiite Muslim militias in Iraq are “false” and the presence of US troops and those of other nations is fuelling the violence.
“We think the presence of foreign forces in Iraq can not help the security,” the Iranian said. “The presence of foreign forces justifies violence and violence is used to justify the presence of foreign forces.”
Since the 2003 US-led invasion, Iraq has experienced a violent uprising by Sunni Muslims, many of whom felt dispossessed after the overthrow of dictator Saddam Hussein, who was also a Sunni. During the past year, increasing sectarian violence between Sunnis and Shiite Muslims, whose leaders dominate the new government, has raised the threat of all-out civil war.
The US, which has more than 140,000 soldiers in Iraq, is counting on a wave of military reinforcements and a crackdown on militias in Baghdad to increase security and permit an eventual draw-down of forces. President George W. Bush earlier this year announced plans to deploy 21,500 more combat troops to help secure the capital and battle terrorists in al-Anbar province.
The Bush administration has said Shiite-dominated Iran is fostering Shiite attacks on Sunnis. The US also says it suspects the Islamic republic is trying to develop nuclear weapons and extend its influence in the Middle East.
The exchanges of blame for Iraq’s strife took place at the table with all the other delegates present, said Iraqi foreign minister Hoshyar Zebari. There were no private meetings between American delegates and either the Syrians or Iranians, he said.
Zebari told reporters that the meeting was designed to persuade all Iraq’s neighbours it was in their interest to help pacify the country. Representatives of the UN, the Arab League and the Organization of Islamic Conference attended, as well as diplomats from Bahrain, China, Egypt, France, Iran, Jordan, Kuwait, Russia, Saudi Arabia, Syria, Turkey, the UK and US.
After 10 hours of talks, the group agreed in principle to hold another gathering, though they did not specify the place or date. Turkey offered to hold the next meeting, which foreign ministers would attend, in Istanbul. Three working groups — on security, refugees and rebuilding — will meet to prepare for the next conference, Zebari said.
The US severed diplomatic ties with Iran after the 1979 seizure by militants of the US embassy in Tehran, and hasn’t had an ambassador in Damascus since 15 February, 2005. The US withdrew its ambassador to Syria, Margaret Scobey, after the assassination of former Lebanese Prime Minister Rafiq Hariri. The Bush administration blamed Syria for the killing as well as for letting terrorists cross its frontier into Iraq.
Khalilzad said he raised the border infiltration issue with the Syrians. In the past, the Syrian government of President Bashar al-Assad said that his police and military try to disrupt cross-border infiltration and that the Americans are not doing enough on the Iraqi side of the frontier.
Iraq’s Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki opened the conference with an appeal to Iraq’s “neighbours” to stop supporting terrorists and “illegal” militias. Maliki did not criticize any country by name, saying Iraq “does not allow itself to intrude on others’ affairs or its territory to be a launching pad for attacks against others”.
Officials in both Syria and Iran have expressed suspicions that once the US is finished in Iraq, it would invade either or both countries.
Baghdad was under curfew during the conference and the streets were largely empty. About two hours into the meeting, there were two explosions near the foreign ministry compound, where the conference was held.
“This is very normal. It happens all the time.” Zebari said he told the delegates, interrupting his speech. “I’m surprised there were not more attacks,” Zebari said. There were no reports of injuries or damage from the explosions.
Separately, a suicide car bomber killed 26 people at an army checkpoint on 11 March, just three kilometers from where the foreign envoys were holding the peace talks, AFP reported, citing a security official.