GENEVA (Reuters) – Iraq is prepared to restart talks with the United States and Iran, and is checking with both sides to see if a fresh round can be scheduled, Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshiyar Zebari said on Sunday.
The United States and Iran, which have not had diplomatic ties for almost three decades, held three rounds of talks last year on ways to help end violence in Iraq. Washington accuses Tehran of aiding Shi’ite militias, a charge the Iranians deny.
A fourth set of ambassador-level talks has been repeatedly postponed by Iran. The talks are one of the few forums in which officials from the arch-foes have direct contact.
“We are ready to resume these talks provided that both sides will agree to that. Recently the Iranians have made some statements that they are willing to resume these talks, and we will go back to the United States, to the Americans, to see if they have this interest,” he said.
“If conditions are suitable the Iraqi government would be delighted to resume these talks,” the minister told a security conference in Geneva.
Zebari also said a premature withdrawal of U.S. forces could plunge his fragile country back into violence.
“There is a genuine and continued need for the multinational forces,” said Zebari, who stressed the recent troop surge gave his government “a critical window of opportunity” to focus on other goals like providing basic services to the Iraqi people.
“We have turned a potentially huge corner,” he said. “What we have now is fragile and not durable. What we do next is critical to the viability and endurance of any hard-won gains we have made.”
Zebari told journalists on Saturday that Iraq and United States have agreed on a draft security pact with “aspirational dates” for U.S. forces to leave Iraq’s cities by summer 2009, and for the Iraqi forces to take over in 2011.
But even in a best-case, he said a small number of U.S. forces could stay on beyond 2011 in a transitional role.
“Whatever happens I think you won’t fix a date or draw a line where all the forces will withdraw. There will be a need for some forces, for some training, for coordination as a residual force,” Zebari said.
The foreign minister said in his remarks on Sunday that the Iraqi parliament would either ratify or reject the status of forces deal, but did not specify exactly when this would occur.
“We now have a single text that must be subject to a political decision for the Iraqi government to accept,” he said.
The United States plans to pull 8,000 troops out of Iraq by February, leaving a force of 138,000 there.