U.S., Iran begin talks on Iraq


There were no major breakthroughs Monday as U.S. and Iranian diplomats held their first formal direct talks in more than a quarter of a century to discuss security in Iraq. But no one had expected any.

At best, the envoys and their Iraqi hosts had hoped the encounter would get two longtime foes talking. On that there was some progress: Iran proposed that a "trilateral mechanism" be established to handle discussions about ways to ease the conflict in Iraq.

Iraqi officials welcomed the suggestion, but with an emphasis that any discussions had to include them, said government spokesman Ali Dubbagh, who was part of the Iraqi delegation headed by national security adviser Mowaffak Rubaie.

But U.S. Ambassador Ryan Crocker was more circumspect.

"That would, of course, be a decision for Washington," Crocker said at a news briefing inside Baghdad's fortified Green Zone.

"My comment at the time was that that sounded very much like the meeting that we were sitting in," he said in a separate conference call with journalists in Washington. "It was not apparent to me exactly what the distinction was between what they were proposing and what we were already doing."

Iranian Ambassador Hassan Kazemi-Qomi did not specify what he had in mind at a news conference held at the Iranian Embassy in Baghdad.

The meeting took place at Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's office inside the high-security Green Zone and represented a reconfiguration of the Bush administration's stance toward Iran.

The administration initially rejected proposals by the Iranians and the bipartisan Iraq Study Group in Washington to open negotiations about security in Iraq. But the U.S. administration has edged away from that stance in recent months. Its representatives attended a neighbors' conference arranged by the Iraqi government in March at which Iran was also present, and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice briefly exchanged pleasantries with her Iranian counterpart at a regional security meeting in Sharm el Sheik, Egypt earlier in May.

Al-Maliki greeted the two ambassadors, who shook hands, and led them into a conference room where their delegations sat across a long table from each other with al-Maliki at the head to exchange preliminary remarks. The Iraqi leader then left, and the meeting continued in another room, with the three sides sitting at separate tables arranged in a triangular formation.

All parties involved described the meeting as positive. During four hours of talks, the negotiators tackled the issues "honestly and transparently," Kazemi-Qomi said.

Crocker, who speaks fluent Arabic, characterized the encounter as a "business-like" discussion that ranged freely between English, Arabic and Farsi.

There was broad agreement on the principles governing U.S. and Iranian policy toward Iraq. Both the U.S. and Iran stated their support for a secure, stable, democratic, federal Iraq that is in control of its own security and at peace with its neighbors, Crocker said at a separate news conference inside the Green Zone.

And both sides reaffirmed their support for al-Maliki.

But Crocker said he told the Iranians that "this is about actions, not just principles," and that they must stop arming, equipping and training militias that are fighting U.S. and Iraqi forces.

The Iranians stated that the U.S. presence in Iraq was an occupation and criticized the United States' multibillion-dollar effort to rebuild Iraq's security forces as inadequate, Crocker said.

The Iraqi government said it would invite the United States and Iran to meet again.

"We had a positive attitude regarding this suggestion," Kazemi-Qomi told reporters.

Crocker said the United States would consider the invitation when it received it, but that, "The purpose of the meeting was not to discuss further meetings."

"I think we are going to want to wait and see not what is said next, but what happens next on the ground, whether we start to see some indications of a change in Iranian behavior," he said.

While there have been quiet talks between the two sides before, the outlook going into the meeting was not auspicious. The talks were narrowly focused on Iraq, but there are wider issues dividing the two sides.

Washington charges that Iran's efforts to enrich uranium are aimed at building weapons, while Iran insists it needs the technology to produce energy.

Iran also fears that the United States will seek regime change in Tehran as it did in Iraq. And both sides have complaints about detainees, including five Iranians seized in Iraq earlier this year and a number of Iranian-Americans apprehended in Iran in recent weeks.

The United States froze diplomatic relations with Iran in 1980 after militants seized the U.S. Embassy in Tehran. The Iranians held 52 Americans hostage for 444 days.

Under the circumstances, analysts were guardedly optimistic about the outcome of the meeting.

"Expectations were fairly low, frankly, because of the hostility that exists between the two countries, and because it only concerned the issue of Iraq, when of course the major issue is the nuclear one," said Joost Hiltermann, Middle East director for the International Crisis Group, a think tank. "So what is coming out of it is actually looking pretty good."

He added: "They've sat together. They've talked about issues. They haven't run out screaming from the room."

Times staff writers Ned Parker and Saif Hameed in Baghdad and Bob Drogin in Washington contributed to this report.

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