BAGHDAD — U.S. and Iranian diplomats harshly criticized each other's policies during "full and frank" talks here Tuesday but agreed to set up a security committee to carry on the discussions, the top U.S. envoy in Iraq said.
The two sides appeared to be as far apart as ever at their second high-level meeting in as many months, with the United States accusing Iran of fueling the internal conflict by backing Shiite Muslim militias in Iraq and Iran demanding the return of five officials who've been in U.S. custody since early this year.
"Over the last two months, we've actually seen military-related activity that can be attributed to Iranian support go up and not down," U.S. Ambassador Ryan Crocker said after the daylong meeting. "I was as clear as I could be with the Iranians that this effort, this discussion, has to be measured in results, not in principles or promises, and that thus far the results on the ground are not encouraging."
But he added that if Iran is serious about dealing with the issues, the security committee will offer a mechanism "to begin taking different kinds of actions here."
Iran's Foreign Ministry spokesman rejected Crocker's charges.
"It is crystal clear that the main objective behind repetition of such baseless accusations against Iran is to pursue U.S. propaganda fuss and psychological warfare against the country," spokesman Mohammad-Ali Hosseini said.
He added that the accusations by U.S. officials that Iran is supporting violent Shiite militias are "to deceive world public opinion that is tired of and concerned about warmongering policies of the U.S. policymakers."
Hassan Kazemi Qomi, Iran's ambassador to Baghdad, said at a televised news conference that his country was helping Iraq to curb the violence but that Iraqis were "victimized by terror and the presence of foreign forces." He asserted that Crocker had "acknowledged making many mistakes," which he called a "step forward in itself."
Just before the talks began, a truck bomb killed at least 27 people in the Iraqi Shiite city of Hilla and injured 67.
The meeting was in the office of Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al Maliki, with Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari as mediator. Zebari emerged from the meeting upbeat about the session. He said the security committee could hold its first talks Wednesday.
"It wasn't easy, but we came out with some concrete results," Zebari said. "It's just a beginning. . . . I told them really we are not here to solve 28 years of mistrust and problems between you . . . you are important players here."
Crocker said the two sides had met at the Iraqi government's request, while Iranian officials said they'd come in response to a formal U.S. request.
As the delegations prepared to talk, the truck bomb went off in Hilla, police said. A tow truck dragged another vehicle in front of the main gate of a children's hospital, where the vehicles exploded, ripping through a row of vehicles and damaging the building.
Samir Ali, 28, ran to the site when he heard the blast. The bodies of dead women, children and mothers-to-be were in the streets.
"This is terrorism," he said. "They don't recognize the sanctity of mosques or hospitals. Terrorism is a disease against all people."
Also on Tuesday, Iraqis demonstrated in the country's northwest against what they called the siege of Husseiniyah, where the American military had razed three buildings earlier this week, killing some civilians. Phone lines were down in the town and people reportedly were unable to get fuel and food.
Iraqi officials and U.S. forces met to deal with what some were calling a crisis. Local leaders agreed to remove dirt walls that were blocking the road into the town and promised there'd be no more attacks on the U.S. forces. American military officers promised to help bring "essential services" back to the town while stressing that its people were "inconvenienced, not suffering," said Lt. Col. Michael Donnelly, a U.S. military spokesman.
(McClatchy Newspapers Special Correspondent Qassim Zein contributed to this report.)