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IRAQ - Baghdad To Have 2 Regional Meetings.

US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice on Feb. 27 welcomed a diplomatic initiative by the government to call at least two international conferences on Iraq's future which would provide an opportunity for the US to tackle its disputes with Iran and Syria over the Iraqi insurgency. Ms Rice told a Senate hearing: "We hope that all governments will seize this opportunity to improve the relations with Iraq and to work for peace and stability in the region".

US officials did not exclude the possibility of bilateral discussions with Iran on the subject of Iraq, but would refuse to discuss the nuclear issue, where the US insists Iran first suspend its nuclear fuel programme (see news10-Iran-NukeIssueMar5-07).

At previous conferences called by the international community on Iraq, Ms Rice and Colin Powell, her predecessor, avoided direct meetings with their Iranian counterparts in Brussels and Egypt. State Department spokesman Sean McCormack on Feb. 27 told reporters: "In the conduct of diplomacy, you need to have a certain amount of flexibility if you are going to achieve the goals that you want to achieve".

The first meeting is to be held in Baghdad at the level of ambassadors on March 10-11, bringing together Iraq and its neighbours and the five permanent members of the UN Security Council (UNSC). A second meeting, to be attended by foreign ministers, is scheduled for April and Ms Rice said she will attend it.

The Bush administration accuses the Quds Forces of Iran's Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps (IRGC) of supplying weapons and explosives to Iraqi Shi'ite militia. Syria has been accused of destabilising Iraq by allowing Neo-Salafi insurgents to cross its border. US Defence Secretary Robert Gates on Feb. 27 said it was "categorically" untrue that the US was preparing to launch air strikes against Iran.

The announcement that the US will take part in two sets of talks between Iraq and its neighbours, including Iran and Syria, signals a shift in President Bush's foreign policy, which has eschewed direct contacts with Tehran and Damascus. While these talks are to focus on stabilising Iraq, they crack open a door to a diplomatic channel, which has long been sought by administration critics who say America should do more to engage its enemies, in particular to help stem the violence in Iraq.

The bipartisan Iraq Study Group (ISG) called in December for just such talks, a call supported by some US and EU leaders. In testimony before a Senate committee, Secretary Rice underscored the importance of the meetings, referring to them as part of a "new component" in US diplomacy and saying: "I would note that the Iraqi government has invited Syria and Iran to attend both of these regional meetings. We hope that all governments seize this opportunity to improve their relations with Iraq and to work for peace and stability in the region" - referring explicitly to the ISG recommendations.

Iraqi Foreign Minister Hosyar Zebari called the face-to-face contact between the US and Iran and Syria "very significant", saying: "Iraq is becoming a divisive issue in the region". But, he added, "Iraq can be helpful to its neighbours also. It can provide a platform for them to work out their differences".

Rice herself seemed to be sending particularly clear messages of late of a US openness to high-level, wide-ranging talks with Iran if Tehran first halted its nuclear-enrichment work. US officials have appeared increasingly frustrated at their lack of greater leverage over Iran. Defence Secretary Gates has said: "Frankly, right at this moment there's really nothing the Iranians want from us, and so in any negotiation right now we would be the supplicant".

Iran's top security official Ali Larijani on March 1 said Tehran's participation in the Baghdad conference would be designed to help the Iraqi government, adding: "We will carry out everything necessary to advance Iraqi interests. Iraqi leaders have a great potential for administering the country's affairs".
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Publication:APS Diplomat Redrawing the Islamic Map
Geographic Code:7IRAQ
Date:Mar 5, 2007
Words:649
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