Iraq summit raises hopes of U.S.-Iran thaw
Delegates meet in Baghdad for regional conference, paving way for direct talks on the side.
By Tina Susman, Times Staff Writer
March 10, 2007


BAGHDAD — Like a frustrated in-law trying to reconcile a feuding couple, Iraq is hoping for a thaw in U.S.-Iran relations when representatives of the countries meet in Baghdad today.

Just getting the two to sit at the same table is a breakthrough, considering how unlikely the possibility seemed weeks ago. But analysts warn against unreasonable expectations. At best, they say, this first date is a chance to chip away at some of the ice coating Washington-Tehran relations, which became even frostier after the U.S. accused Iran of sending bombs to Iraqi Shiites attacking U.S. troops.

"That's useful in and of itself," said Jonathan Alterman of the Center for Strategic Studies in Washington. "Diplomacy is about processes, not successes. You get successes through processes."

This process began in December, when the Iraqi government decided to invite regional foreign ministers to Baghdad for a security conference. It ballooned into a global gathering fraught with diplomatic baggage as Iraqi officials, not wanting to leave crucial players out of the loop, expanded the invitation list. In addition to Iraq's neighbors and the United States, representatives of the permanent members of the U.N. Security Council and the Arab League also are attending.

The meeting is sure to highlight the tangled loyalties, resentments and suspicions in the region's nations, which fear the spread of Iraq's sectarian and ethnic strife as well as the continued flow of refugees.

The United States has sent David Satterfield, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice's special advisor on Iraq, and U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad. Iran's deputy foreign minister, Abbas Araghchi, is leading his country's delegation.

Both countries remained coy about whether they would hold private talks. Neither has said they would seek them out, or that they would reject them.

Iraq's deputy foreign minister, Labeed Abbawi, hinted that his country was hoping for movement in that direction. Although Iraq wants the conference to focus on its security, "maybe it will open up a constructive dialogue on other regional issues," Abbawi said.

Talks with Iran and Syria were a key recommendation of the bipartisan Iraq Study Group in December. President Bush initially rejected the idea, and the White House insisted that attendance at this meeting did not constitute a shift in policy.

During a visit to Brazil on Friday, Bush said U.S. participation was aimed purely at helping Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Maliki's government.

"We'll see how it goes, but I'm happy to have supported the prime minister's request that this meeting take place," he said.

Still, U.S. participation is seen by some as a major adjustment in Bush administration strategy.

"This meeting is incredibly important from a psychological point of view," said Joost Hiltermann, a Middle East expert with the International Crisis Group in Amman, Jordan. Not only does it represent a sea change in U.S. policy, he said, it is bringing together neighbors who despite their differences want to see some good come to Iraq. "This is a very important basis for future talks."

The U.S.-Iranian issue is just one of many dogging Maliki, who needs the help of his neighbors — mostly Sunni Arab states critical of his Shiite-led government — to rebuild Iraq.

They include Syria, an Iranian ally. The United States accuses it of fueling the violence in Iraq by allowing anti-U.S. insurgents to cross its border, and also of meddling in Lebanon's affairs.

"Our message to the Syrians and Iranians won't change" at the meeting, Bush said.

Other neighbors include Jordan and Saudi Arabia, Sunni-majority states that joined other Arab League nations Sunday in accusing Maliki of sidelining Iraqi's Sunni Arab minority.

The league said it planned to use the conference to call for constitutional reforms to give non-Shiites more power, sparking angry responses from Iraq's government and leading Shiite clerics.

Abdelaziz Hakim, considered Iraq's most powerful Shiite political leader, alluded to the Arab League statement Friday in a speech to about 3 million Shiite pilgrims gathered for a religious festival in the city of Karbala. Hakim said the criticisms of the Iraqi government ignored the country's accomplishments since the overthrow of Saddam Hussein's Sunni-led regime, and he told other nations not to try to push Iraq around.

"We warn about the dangers of imposing special regional or international goals" opposed to what Iraq wants, Hakim said, a statement that added to concerns that sniping before the meeting could get things off to a rocky start.

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