Prospects for another round of talks between Iranian and U.S. officials soon appeared dead Wednesday after Iraq's foreign minister said tensions between Tehran and Washington made such a meeting impossible.
Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari's comments showed how sharply U.S.-Iranian relations have deteriorated over the issue of violence in Iraq, which appeared to be decreasing last fall, in the wake of fighting in Iraq between U.S.-led forces and Shiite Muslim militias.
Wednesday was one of the calmest days since the violence flared March 25, but the U.S. military reported that a Marine had been killed in Anbar province. The attack occurred Tuesday, the military said without giving details.
At least 4,073 U.S. troops have died since the Iraq war began in March 2003, according to the independent website icasualties.org. The Marine's death was the fifth reported in the western province in a week, an unusual number in a region that had seen a dramatic drop in U.S. fatalities in the last year. The decline in Anbar is attributed to the birth of the Awakening movement, which turned Sunni Muslim tribal sheiks who had once harbored insurgents into allies of U.S. and Iraqi forces.
Zebari's comments came two days after the Iranian Foreign Ministry's spokesman, Mohammed Ali Hosseini, said no talks could take place while U.S. forces were involved in "open and extensive bombing" of Baghdad neighborhoods. Hosseini was referring to U.S. strikes on strongholds of Shiite cleric Muqtada Sadr and his Mahdi Army militia.
Zebari said Iraqi officials had proposed four possible dates for Iranian-U.S. talks on Iraq's security, the most recent being March 6. He did not say which side balked and did not blame either side for the inability to arrange talks since the last round in August. That was the third time since March 2007 that Iranian and U.S. officials had come together, at the Iraqi government's urging, to discuss ways to stabilize Iraq.
The Iraqi foreign minister made it clear that his government found it maddening to be squeezed between two crucial allies who cannot get along.
"The atmosphere of . . . media attacks, exchange of attacks and accusations and lack of trust and confidence . . . I don't think we will succeed in having the fourth round" of talks, he said.
"The idea is not dead," Zebari added. "We hope we will be able to resume it."
Neither Washington nor Tehran shows signs of budging in the current standoff, which escalated this month after U.S. military officials said Iranian-made weapons manufactured in 2008 had been found in the southern city of Basra. They said the weapons showed that Iran had not kept a promise to Iraq late last year to stop interfering in the country.
But after an Iraqi parliament delegation visited Iran last week to discuss the evidence, it returned saying only that a committee was needed to further investigate the claims. Neither Iraq nor the U.S. has displayed any of the alleged Iranian-made weapons.
At a news conference Wednesday, the chief U.S. military spokesman, Maj. Gen. Kevin Bergner, said 600 rockets and 387 roadside bombs, along with 1,800 mortar rounds, had been found in Basra since the end of March. But he made no mention of any of them being Iranian-made, a notable omission compared with the accusations in the last two weeks.
Special correspondents in Baghdad contributed to this report.