By Tina Susman, Times Staff Writer
11:46 AM PST, March 10, 2007


BAGHDAD -- Iran, the United States, and a host of regional powers agreed today on the need to help Iraq improve its security, but their much-touted meeting produced no discernible warming in U.S.-Iranian relations and failed to settle plans for future talks.

The chief of the Iranian delegation to the talks, Abbas Araghchi, a deputy foreign minister, used a news conference to demand that the United States set a timetable for withdrawing its troops from Iraq.

"We think the presence of foreign forces in Iraq cannot help the security of Iraq in the long term," he said, blaming "mistakes and wrongdoings in Iraq" by the United States for the country's current problems.

The chaos enveloping the capital was evident as the meeting was under way. At least two mortars landed with thunderous booms just outside the wall of the ministry. In the Shiite stronghold of Sadr City, in northeastern Baghdad, a car bomb killed at least 7 people and injured 43.

Prime Minister Nouri Maliki opened the meeting with a sharp message to his neighbors and benefactors to stop using Iraq as a battleground.

Though Iraq's insecurity was the topic of the conference, much of the attention was focused on the presence of U.S. and Iranian officials, who were sharing a public form for the first time in more than two years.

Neither country had indicated it would seek out a bilateral meeting during today's one-day event, but Maliki's government made clear it had hoped to at least instigate a thaw in their icy relations.

Washington accuses Iran of fueling Iraq's war by providing weapons to Shiite militias attacking U.S. troops. Iran's Shiite-led government denies the charges. It has accused the United States of orchestrating the abduction of one of its Baghdad-based diplomats, and of unjustly arresting several Iranian officials in Iraq.

The United States is also at odds with Syria, another meeting attendee, which it accuses of intentionally leaving its borders porous to allow easy crossing into Iraq for terrorists opposed to the U.S. occupation.

In his statement, U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad alluded to the U.S. differences with both Syria and Iran, without mentioning their names.

"The coalition does not have anyone in detention who is a diplomat," he said, using the word "coalition" to refer to the nations that have troops supporting the United States in Iraq.

Khalilzad said Iraq's neighbors could only be considered allies of Iraq if they halted the flow of fighters, weapons "and other lethal support to militias and other illegal armed groups," a reference to Shiite militias and Sunni Arab insurgents.

In addition to the United States, Iraq, Iran and Syria, those at the gathering included representatives of the permanent U.N. Security Council states, leaders from the mainly Sunni Arab league states, and all six of Iraq's neighbors.

Maliki's opening statements appeared aimed at both Iran and the United States; and at the Arab League, which last week said it would use the conference to demand that Maliki's Shiite-led government give minority Sunnis more power in government.

"Iraq does not allow itself to intrude on others' affairs, or its territory to be a launching pad for attacks against others. We ... expect to have the same stance from others," he said.

The prime minister also demanded that "regional or international states," which he did not identify by name, "refrain from having a share or an influence in the Iraqi state of affairs, by trying to induce a certain sect, nationality or party."

The meeting was attended by lower-level officials, whose prime task was to lay the groundwork for a second, high-level meeting, as early as next month.

But Iraq's foreign minister, Hoshyar Zebari, said no date was set for future talks. He said delegates agreed to establish working groups to focus on cooperation on security matters, Iraq's growing refugee problem, and fuel and energy imports into Iraq.

susman@latimes.com

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