IRAQ SUMMIT YIELDS NO THAW FOR U.S., IRAN
The first crashing sound came just after lunch Saturday, when mortar rounds slammed into the street outside the building where U.S., Iranian and other officials were meeting here to discuss ways to end the violence in Iraq.
The next one came six hours later, when Iran’s chief delegate stood on a podium and ripped into U.S. policy in Iraq, clobbering hopes that the summit would prove an ice-breaker in the two countries’ chilly relations.
The meeting, the first such gathering in Iraq since the overthrow of Saddam Hussein four years ago, was intended to shore up support for the Iraqi government. On that front, it appeared to have been cordial but far from a resounding success.
Delegates from neighboring countries and elsewhere did not set a date for a second, higher-level gathering of foreign ministers and agreed only to establish working groups to focus on various issues.
But much of the attention was on the U.S.-Iranian sideshow, a crucial element because of Washington’s allegation that Tehran is helping Iraqi insurgents. Would the Iranian and U.S. delegates steal away for some private discussions? Would they be seated near each other during the talks? Would they commit to future meetings?
The answer to all was no, a message that sounded through the Foreign Ministry’s cavernous interior as clearly as the lunchtime booms.
As the delegates met, a suicide car bomb killed at least seven people and injured more than 40 in a northeastern neighborhood of Baghdad. The bombing, at an entrance to the Shiite-dominated Sadr City, and the mortar rounds were reminders of the challenges U.S. and Iraqi troops face as they try to win support for their latest security plan to end the bloodshed in the capital.
Seventeen delegations attended the security conference, including groups from all of Iraq’s six neighbors -- Iran, Syria, Jordan, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia and Turkey -- and from the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council. Also represented were the Arab League and the Organization of the Islamic Conference.
The guest list reflected the importance that Iraq placed on the conference, but it also guaranteed tense moments, considering the political baggage that accompanied many delegations.
The United States accuses Iran’s Shiite regime of sending weapons to Iraqi rebels fighting U.S. troops. It accuses Syria of letting terrorists cross its border into Iraq.
Iran, meanwhile, is at odds with the United Nations over its nuclear enrichment program, and Sunni-majority states in the region are angry with the Iraqi government for not giving the country’s Sunni Arab minority more power.
Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Maliki, in his opening remarks, appeared to be angry with all of them for putting his country in the middle of their squabbles.
“Iraq does not allow itself to intrude on others’ affairs, or its territory to be a launching pad for attacks against others. We ... expect to have the same stance from others,” he said. The prime minister also demanded that states “refrain from having a share or an influence in the Iraqi state of affairs, by trying to induce a certain sect, nationality or party.”
Maliki’s statements seemed aimed at Iran and the United States, and at the Arab League, which last week said it would use the conference to demand that the Shiite-led Iraqi government give Sunni Arabs a greater role.
His comments appeared to set the tone for the meeting, which went on for several hours behind closed doors. Delegates sat at a long, rectangular table, with the U.S. ambassador to Iraq, Zalmay Khalilzad, seated at one end and Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari at the other, according to an Iranian journalist who was allowed into the room briefly to film his country’s delegation.
Iran’s chief delegate, Abbas Araghchi, a deputy foreign minister, sat to the left of Zebari, and the group had soft drinks during the discussions, the journalist said.
Khalilzad used his opening remarks to issue veiled criticisms of Iran and Syria. He said Iraq’s neighbors could be considered allies of Iraq only if they halted the flow of fighters, weapons “and other lethal support to militias and other illegal armed groups,” a reference to Shiite militias and Sunni Arab insurgents.
U.S. officials have accused Iran of providing the sophisticated armor-piercing explosives that have caused the deaths of at least 170 of the more than 3,400 U.S.-led forces killed in Iraq. Iran denies the accusation and says the United States is using it as a scapegoat for its failure to end Iraq’s violence four years after the invasion.
Zebari described the U.S. exchanges with Iran and Syria as “lively,” diplomatic-speak for heated. Khalilzad called them “businesslike” and said later that Iran offered no acknowledgment that it was doing any of the things of which Washington accuses it.
At a briefing for journalists after the meeting, Khalilzad said Iran had said all the right things about wanting to help bring peace to Iraq.
“But statements are not sufficient,” he said. “The next step is to see that these statements are translated into concrete action.”
Araghchi, who headed the 10-member Iranian delegation, told reporters that the first step toward bringing peace to Iraq was getting rid of foreign forces. Referring to U.S. actions in Iraq, he said, “They have made so many mistakes and wrongdoings ... because of the false information and intelligence they had at the beginning” of the war.
He also said that the presence of foreign troops fueled the violence in Iraq by giving anti-U.S. groups a reason for attacks. That violence was then being used to justify the foreign forces’ continued presence, Araghchi said. “We are in fact facing a vicious cycle.
“For the sake of peace and stability in Iraq ... we need a timetable for the withdrawal of foreign forces,” he said. Asked about the likelihood of future talks with the U.S., Araghchi said that was up to Washington.
“If the Americans are interested, there is a proper channel for that,” he said.
Khalilzad said that if a second meeting involving foreign ministers were held, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice would be at a table with her Iranian counterpart.
“So there will be opportunity for dialogue at the table, at least,” he said, but offered no indication that Washington might seek bilateral talks.
The bombing in Sadr City was a particular setback for the new security plan, coming just six days after U.S. and Iraqi troops made a high-profile and peaceful foray into the neighborhood to establish a permanent base there. The area has been the domain of masked gunmen loyal to anti-U.S. Shiite cleric Muqtada Sadr. U.S. officials had touted their unfettered foray into Sadr City as solid evidence of the security plan’s success.
Witnesses said the bombing occurred near an Iraqi military checkpoint and appeared aimed at several minivans filled with Shiites returning from an annual pilgrimage to the holy city of Karbala.
A U.S. military statement said the bomb went off at the entrance to Sadr City when Iraqi soldiers tried to search the car. The military said six Iraqi troops were killed, but witnesses said seven people died, including some civilians.
There was also a troubling sign that Shiite death squads, which have been largely restrained since the security plan took effect, were growing impatient with the number of suicide bombings and other attacks targeting Shiites.
Baghdad police, who each day report the number of bodies found around the city in the previous 24 hours, said Saturday that they had found the corpses of 34 men, all shot execution-style and believed to be Sunnis targeted by Shiite militias. It was the highest number reported in six weeks, according to a tally kept by The Times and based on police and morgue reports.
Also Saturday, a rocket slammed into a crowded market in the northern city of Kirkuk. Police said at least three people were killed.
Special correspondents in Baghdad and Kirkuk contributed to this report.