U.S. and Iran set new Iraq talks

McClatchy NewspapersNovember 20, 2007 

BAGHDAD — Iran and the United States have agreed to meet soon for a fourth round of talks on Iraqi security, underscoring what Iraqi officials say is growing, if grudging, cooperation between the two adversaries.

Officials in Iran and Washington confirmed Tuesday that new talks would take place, though no date was announced. Iraqi officials said that they expect the talks, arranged through the Swiss government, which represents U.S. interests in Tehran, will be held in Baghdad later this month.

The meetings may be among the more unexpected outcomes of the Iraq war. The United States and Iran severed diplomatic relations in 1979, after Iran's Islamic Revolution toppled the U.S.-backed Shah, and the leaders of each have been painting the threat posed by the other in increasingly hyperbolic terms.

Iraqi officials said that the first three meetings led to important agreements, including a pledge from Iran to stop shipments of sophisticated roadside bombs to Iraqi militias, and that more talks are a matter of Iraqi survival.

"We joke around here that we don't want to be stuck in a war between the 'Axis of Evil' and the 'Great Satan'," said Amar Hakim, the secretary-general of the Supreme Islamic Iraqi Council, Iraq's largest political party.

President Bush called Iran, Iraq and North Korea the "axis of evil" in his 2002 State of the Union address. Iranians have referred to the United States as the Great Satan since the Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini used the phrase in 1979.

Neither U.S. nor Iranian officials have said much about the previous meetings between U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Ryan Crocker and Iran's ambassador to Iraq, Hassan Kazemi Qomi, on May 28, July 24 and Aug. 6.

But Iraqi Foreign Minister Hosyar Zebari said that despite the bombast from Tehran and Washington, the previous meetings, which have lasted as long as four hours, have been cordial.

With President Bush, Vice President Dick Cheney and their allies casting Iran as a threat to world peace whose leaders can't be trusted and would start "World War III" if they obtained a nuclear weapon, U.S. officials in Iraq have been low-key about attributing much good to the meetings.

Last week, however, Army Maj. Gen. James Simmons, a deputy commander in charge of studying the use of roadside bombs in Iraq, said that Iran had kept its word about halting shipments of explosively formed penetrators, or EFPs, a particularly deadly form of roadside bomb.

"We believe the commitments that the Iranians have made appear to be holding up," Simmons said.

American officials remain skeptical, however. U.S. troops are still finding large EFP caches, and military leaders said they want to know whether those caches are new or were stocked before Iran promised both Iraqi officials and a key U.S. European ally that it would halt supplies.

On Tuesday, Adm. Michael Mullen, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, offered his own note of caution.

"We'd all like to see Iran take a constructive and responsible role," he told foreign reporters in Washington. "It is too soon to tell if they are in fact living up to their pledge to do so."

Officials of Iraq's Shiite Muslim-led government, many of whom have ties to Iran, said that they believe that the Iranians have kept their word and are eager for the two sides to keep talking. They said they consider Iran an ally and that, as a neighbor and friend, Iran has a legitimate, if limited, role to play in Iraq.

Iraqi officials said they're particularly grateful to Shiite Iran for curbing radical Shiite cleric Moqtada al Sadr's Mahdi Army militia.

"Their reining-in of the Mahdi Army was very helpful," said Zebari, who's sat in on all the talks between the U.S. and Iran. "Our discussions have helped."

Aides to Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki said the Iranians promised to help ease Iraq's violence when Maliki traveled to Tehran in August.

"We heard from them a strong commitment to cooperate with the Iraqi government" on several issues, said Sadiq al Rakabi, a Maliki adviser. "We have a responsibility to protect our borders and reach out to our neighbors . . . despite American perceptions."

Iraqi officials also have strongly supported Iranian demands that the U.S. release all the Iranian prisoners it's holding in Iraq. The U.S. says that the Iranians were caught fomenting violence, but Iraq insists that they were diplomats or businessmen who were in Iraq legitimately. Earlier this month, U.S. officials released nine Iranians, including one who'd been held for three years.

The talks between the U.S. and Iran in Iraq, even if limited, have impressed some outside experts.

James Denselow, an Iraq expert at Chatham House, a leading British foreign policy think tank, said that the U.S. leadership in Iraq is taking a "very pragmatic" approach to Iran's role in Iraq.

It's also easy to understand why the Iraqi leaders feel so strongly that they must have good relations with Iran, where many of them spent years in exile, he said.

"They know Iran will always be there," Denselow said. "The U.S. will not."

McClatchy Newspapers 2007

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