BAGHDAD,(Reuters) – Iraq wants action not words from a regional conference in Baghdad on Saturday and will urge Iran and the United States not to use it as a playing field to settle their scores, Iraq’s foreign minister said on Friday.
Iraq has called the meeting to enlist support in stopping a slide into full-scale civil war but it is being closely watched as a rare opportunity for officials from Washington and Tehran to meet at a time of tension over Iran’s nuclear ambitions. “We do not want Iraq to be the battleground to settle scores for other countries and for them to settle their scores with the United States here at our expense,” Hoshiyar Zebari told Reuters in an interview.
Zebari said Saturday’s mid-level meeting would be followed by others at a more senior level, at a date to be determined. “We don’t want to raise expectations, one meeting will not solve the problems of my country,” Zebari said. “But their very presence, having the meeting in Baghdad, is a major success for the government and for the people.” “What do we expect from this? Really, some actions, not words. Not (just) statements of solidarity or support.”
The United States accuses Iran and Syria of fomenting the insurgency in Iraq, where violence rages four years after U.S.-led forces invaded the country to topple former dictator Saddam Hussein. Syria and Iran deny the charge.
The United States this week sent its clearest signal yet it is open to bilateral talks with Iran and Syria by saying it will not rebuff them if they wish to discuss stabilising Iraq.
“If we are approached over orange juice by the Syrians or the Iranians to discuss an Iraq-related issue that is germane to this topic — stable, secure, peaceful, democratic Iraq — we are not going to turn and walk away,” David Satterfield, the State Department’s Iraq coordinator, told reporters.
While insisting the agenda would focus on Iraq, Zebari did not rule out bilateral meetings, saying with a smile: “There’s lunch and there is some orange juice and soft drinks going around.”
The meeting groups officials from Iraq’s neighbours, as well as the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council — the United States, Russia, China, Britain and France — and other Arab countries. “We thought it would be good idea to see Iraq as a unifying issue for them, not as a divisive issue,” Zebari said. “We are concerned about escalation in the region.”
Satterfield said whether or not bilateral talks were held would depend in part on the Syrian and Iranian stance. U.S. officials have said any talks with Iran would focus on U.S. charges that Iran is supplying weapons to militants in Iraq.
Washington, which has no diplomatic relations with Iran, has had contacts with Iranian officials in group settings, including as recently as September, but has resisted bilateral talks.
It has offered to talk to Iran if Tehran first suspends its uranium enrichment, a process that can produce fuel for power plans or for atomic bombs. Iran has so far refused to do that and says its nuclear programme is peaceful.
Analysts say Iran’s decision to attend reflects a more conciliatory approach in its foreign policy, but that Tehran remains wary U.S. officials could use the gathering to berate it for what Washington calls its meddling in Iraq.
Ayatollah Ahmad Jannati, a conservative Iranian cleric who heads the constitutional watchdog the Guardian Council, hit out at the meeting on Friday. “What do they want to do? They want to take Iraq out of the hands of the Iraqi people and give Iraq’s authority to an American institution so that it would completely be in the hands of Americans. This is what they do to make up for their failures in Iraq,” he said.