Baghdad: US officials are expected to call on Iran to stop arming and funding Shiite militias when Iranian and American diplomats hold rare talks in Baghdad on Monday to discuss how to curb sectarian violence in Iraq.
Iran denies the charge, despite the US military putting on display what it says are Iranian-made rockets, mortars and sophisticated roadside bombs seized in Iraq.
US officials do not expect any great breakthrough from the talks, which come as US warships hold war games in the Gulf and Tehran said it had uncovered spy networks on its territory run by the US and its allies.
The Iranian Foreign Ministry on Sunday summoned the Swiss ambassador to Tehran, who represents US interests in Tehran, to voice its displeasure at the spy networks.
US President George W. Bush called last week for stronger sanctions against Iran over its nuclear programme, which Washington says is being used to develop a nuclear bomb.
But Iran’s atom programme will not be up for discussion on Monday. Only one item will be on the agenda -- Iraq, where sectarian violence between minority Sunnis and majority Shi’ites threatens all-out civil war that could spill into the region.
The talks between US ambassador Ryan Crocker and his Iranian counterpart Hassan Kazemi-Qomi mark a reversal by Washington, which broke ties with Tehran in 1980 and has largely sought to isolate the Islamic Republic in recent years.
Crocker has said he does not expect “any stunning, startling breakthroughs” from the meeting. US officials say he will press Iran to take steps to reduce violence in Iraq.
In the past few months, the US military has displayed explosively formed penetrators (EFPs) -- a particularly deadly roadside bomb -- and other weapons it says are being supplied by Iran to Iraqi militants to target American soldiers.
May is on track to be one of the deadliest months for US troops in the four-year-old war. More than 100 have been killed so far, most by roadside bombs.
The US military also says Shiite militias are receiving funding and training in Iran. In February, US troops detained five Iranians accused of ties to Iran’s Revolutionary Guards, although Iran insists they are diplomats.
The fate of the five could be one bargaining chip that the Americans bring to the table, although Iran’s Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki said last week he had been assured by Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshiyar Zebari they could be freed by 21 June.
Many experts, including a bipartisan US panel on Iraq, have urged the Bush administration to talk to Iraq’s neighbours, Iran and Syria. Bush, who initially rejected talks with Iran, is coming under mounting domestic pressure to end the war and pull out some 150,000 U.S. troops.
Despite the 27-year freeze in formal ties, mid-ranking officials from Iran and the US have met occasionally, most recently to discuss Afghanistan before and after the US-led war to overthrow the Taliban.
Monday’s talks follow a conference on Iraq in Egypt earlier this month, where a hoped-for meeting between US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Mottaki failed to materialise.
The location and time of the meeting have not been disclosed, almost certainly for security reasons as it will likely be held in the heavily secured Green Zone that houses the US embassy and Iraqi government.
Militants have been hitting the zone with mortars and rockets more often and with greater accuracy in recent weeks.