WASHINGTON (AFP) - The United States challenged Iran directly over its activities in Iraq, and Tehran rejected the accusations in the first high-level meeting between the two sides in years Saturday, US ambassador to Baghdad Zalmay Khalilzad said.

In an interview with US television network NBC's Meet the Press program, to be broadcast Sunday, Khalilzad said he spoke with his Iran counterpart for a few minutes Saturday at the opening of the regional conference of Iraq's neighbours and world powers on restoring security to the country.

While there were no "substantive" direct talks between the two sides, Khalilzad said he raised US allegations that Iran was supplying arms and other support to Iraqi insurgents.

"I did specifically mention the role that the neighbors have played, particularly those that have provided arms that have been negative; money, weapons and also provocative statements.

"I did raise that with them, and we will see the impact of this meeting and future engagements on what they do ... will they stop supplying arms and training and money to militias and other unauthorized groups, what happens to their statements since they broadcast into Iraq," Khalilzad said.

Asked if the Iranians denied providing arms and training to Iraqis, Khalilzad replied: "They did, and they also raised some issues of concern on their part, the arrest of some of their officials, and I responded to that."

"We will be monitoring their behavior. That's what ultimately will count, but this meeting and exchanges today were constructive."

The exchange during the Baghdad talks constituted a rare meeting between representatives of Iran and the United States.

Washington has had no diplomatic relations with Tehran for decades, and has refused to engage directly until Tehran freezes its nuclear program.

But in recent weeks the United States has appeared warmer to the idea of communicating directly with its Middle East adversary.

Khalilzad played down the idea of a change in policy, telling NBC: "The meeting today was in a multilateral setting, and it was focused on Iraq at the invitation of the Iraqi government. So, this is, in my view, not a change in policy, but something that we have said we would do, and we have stated that repeatedly for some time."

He also said that the discussions on rebuilding Iraq were constructive, that participants agreed to form working groups to look at security, refugee problems, and oil and electricity.

"The exchanges were good," he said. "We will see what happens on the ground, but I think as the meeting goes, as a first step, it was a good meeting."


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