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Iran puts off Iraq talks with U.S.

Times Staff Writer

Hopes that Washington and Tehran might soon collaborate to help stabilize Iraq dimmed Thursday as Iran postponed a fourth round of negotiations and U.S. officials ratcheted up the accusations against their rival.

Lt. Gen. Raymond T. Odierno, on his last day as the U.S. commander of day-to-day operations in Iraq, accused Iran of stirring violence to keep Iraq weak. The Iranian Embassy in Baghdad shrugged off the allegations as “mere rumors.”

Late last year, U.S. officials backed away from sweeping allegations that the Iranian government was orchestrating the funding, training and equipping of Shiite Muslim militias that have battled U.S. soldiers in Iraq. Iran has rejected the accusations and blames the bloodshed on the presence of American troops.

U.S. commanders had said there were signs that Iranian authorities were keeping a vow made to Iraqi leaders last summer to help stem the flow of support across the notoriously porous border.

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Lately, however, U.S. officials have reported a rising number of attacks that use the kind of sophisticated armor-piercing explosives that they allege come from Iran.

Odierno alleged Thursday that Shiite fighters backed by Iran were trying to reinsert themselves into Baghdad and “create some chaos.”

“I think they are still funded by Iran. I think there is still training that goes on with these groups. They might have slowed the flow of weapons, but there are still weapons” coming in, Odierno told reporters after handing command to Lt. Gen. Lloyd J. Austin III of the 18th Airborne Corps at a ceremony in one of Saddam Hussein’s former palaces in Baghdad.

“I think Iran wants a weak Iraq,” he said. “We’ve got to realize that and the Iraqi government has got to realize that.”

Iraqi officials, who have warned both sides that they do not want their country used as a proxy battlefield, said Iran was cooperating on security, such as by exerting influence over militiamen loyal to radical Shiite cleric Muqtada Sadr.

“They were in my view instrumental in reining in the Mahdi Army, and that led to a sharp drop in sectarian killing,” Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari told The Times. But, he acknowledged, “the positive attitude which we have seen recently doesn’t necessarily mean that they have stopped meddling, interfering or influencing events.”

The deepening dispute between U.S. and Iranian officials came as the Iraqi government announced that President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad would arrive in Iraq on March 2 for a two-day visit, the first by an Iranian head of government since the 1979 Islamic Revolution.

During Hussein’s rule, Iraq and Iran fought an eight-year war in the 1980s that left an estimated 1 million people dead or injured. But relations improved after U.S.-led forces ousted Hussein in 2003, clearing the way for the ascent of Iraq’s majority Shiite community. Iran is one of Iraq’s main trading partners and Iranian pilgrims regularly visit the country’s Shiite holy sites.

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Iraqi officials offered few details about Ahmadinejad’s trip, which they said was at the invitation of Iraqi President Jalal Talabani, an ethnic Kurd and a frequent visitor to Iran. Zebari said Ahmadinejad would meet with Talabani and Prime Minister Nouri Maliki, a Shiite, in Baghdad and also visit Najaf.

In Washington, State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said of the planned visit: “We would look for Iran to play a positive role in Iraq’s present as well as its future. It’s not inherently provocative. We don’t know what they are going to do and say there. I guess we will see.”

Iraqi officials, hoping to ease relations between the U.S. and Iran, their two key allies, last year played host to a series of ambassadorial-level meetings. The Iraqis have been unable to persuade Iran to commit to another round of talks.

Zebari said talks had been scheduled for today. “We had a firm date,” he said. But late Wednesday, the Iranian delegation requested a delay. No reason was given, he said.

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A spokesman for the Iranian Embassy, speaking on condition of anonymity, cited unspecified “technical” reasons for the postponement.

“We have been saying for weeks that we are ready to sit down and talk, and it has become increasingly clear that the Iranians are not,” said Mirembe Nantongo, a U.S. Embassy spokeswoman.

Karim Sadjadpour, an Iran expert at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington, offered several possible explanations for Iran’s ambivalence.

One possibility was that Tehran is so hostile to the Bush administration that it will do nothing that could strengthen its hand, he said.

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Iran also could be signaling that it cannot be expected to cooperate with the U.S. in Iraq when Washington continues to press for new sanctions to force Iran to suspend its nuclear-enrichment program, he said. The U.S. fears that the program is designed to develop weapons rather than the stated goal of electricity.

“But it may be something less sinister than some kind of Iranian master plan,” Sadjadpour said. It may be “that there simply isn’t a consensus . . . in Tehran as to what the goals are in Iraq.”

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alexandra.zavis@latimes.com

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Times staff writers Paul Richter in Washington and Saif Hameed in Baghdad and special correspondents in Baghdad and Tikrit contributed to this report.


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