BAGHDAD, Iraq—U.S. and Iranian diplomats largely echoed the growing acrimony between Washington and Tehran in their first round of talks on Iraqi security on Monday.
After four hours of face-to-face closed-door talks, they appeared to have agreed on just one thing: Like their Green Zone host, Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki, both sides want stability in Iraq under the current government.
The problem is, Washington thinks the best way to achieve that is to get Iran out of the Iraqi picture and Tehran thinks Washington should go.
The much-anticipated encounter between U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Ryan Crocker and Iranian Ambassador Hassan Kazemi Qomi, which both described as "positive," was highest level of official talks between the two countries since Washington severed diplomatic relations in 1980. That was five months after Americans were taken hostage at the U.S. embassy in Tehran.
The two ambassadors, flanked by their staffs, and moderated by Iraqi National Security Adviser Mowaffak al Rubaie, spent much of the time trading charges, however.
At a press conference after the talks, Crocker renewed U.S. accusations that Iran is supplying Iranian-made weapons to Iraqi militias and training them. He challenged the Iranian delegation to back their public talk of supporting the Maliki government and a stable Iraq by stopping their meddling.
"From the American point of view, this is about action, not just principles," Crocker said. "We laid out specific concerns about the behavior of Iran. ... Such activities need to cease."
Hours after Crocker's statement, the Iranian ambassador denied the accusations at a press conference with reporters at the Iranian embassy. He said that the next time the U.S. ambassador wants to accuse Iran of something, he should bring evidence supporting the charge.
"For four years, the Americans have failed to rebuild this country. The Americans should solve the problem that Iraqis suffer from," he told reporters, referring to continued instability in Iraq.
He said that Iran had proposed a joint U.S.-Iran security commission on Iraq, which would bind them to deal directly with each other on the continued lack of security. Crocker said he would have to take the idea back to Washington for consideration.
Kazemi Qomi said he anticipated future meetings between Iran and the United States at the Iraqi government's request.
Crocker was coyer.
"The Iraqi government said it would extend an invitation for further meetings. We'll consider that invitation when we receive it," he said. "The meeting should not be simply to arrange other meetings."
"This negotiation," said Kazemi Qomi, "is the first step to future negotiations."
Crocker parried that while "businesslike," the session had accomplished little.
"Among diplomats, as I'm sure you know, you don't need a lot of substance to take up a lot of time," he said.
Kazemi Qomi told reporters that he thought the Iraqi government was ready to stand on its own and pledged that Iran would provide support for the Iraqi Security Forces.
"We are ready to support the Iraqi army with weapons, supplies, advice and training," he said.
Maliki, who opened the talks with a brief speech but did not stay for them, said he did not want Iraq to be a proxy battleground for U.S. and Iran.
"We are not mediators between two adversaries," Maliki said. "We want an Iraq that is stable and empty of international forces and empty of regional interference."
In a feature of the talks that made them more awkward, Crocker and a half dozen aides, including deputy chief of mission Daniel Speckhard, addressed the Iranian ambassador directly. Kazemi Qomi and his aides, on the other hand, generally addressed the Iraqi moderator and staff, according to an Iraqi official with knowledge of the talks.
In recent months, the Bush administration has claimed to have ample evidence that Iran has been bolstering fellow Shiites and in some cases Sunnis in Iraq with weapons and training. The U.S. military has displayed confiscated caches of explosively formed projectiles it insists came from Iran.
For its part, Iran continues to call for a withdrawal of U.S. troops, claiming that the U.S. presence creates a refuge for anti-Iranian rebels.
While talk of Tehran's nuclear ambitions was banned from Monday's talks on Iraqi security, Washington has been cultivating international pressure to halt the production of highly enriched uranium in Iran. Tehran has fiercely defended its right to proceed, and claims its program is aimed chiefly at developing nuclear power plants.
In a show of force widely seen as a signal to the Iranian government, two U.S. Navy aircraft carrier strike groups carrying 17,000 marines and sailors steamed into the Persian Gulf last week.
The talks produced no lull in violence. As the meeting ended a truck bomb exploded near the most prominent Sunni mosque in Iraq, Abdul Qadr al Gailani mosque, killing 22 and injuring 30.
Around noon a gun battle raged between police and gunmen after police received a call that two buses had been hijacked in the Sunni neighborhood of Fadhil, police said. At least three policemen were killed, police said.
Also at least 31 unidentified bodies were found in Baghdad, mostly in the contested neighborhoods west of the river, evidence that sectarian violence continues.
(c) 2007, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.