BAGHDAD, (Reuters) – Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki urged key players at a regional conference on Saturday to adopt a firm stand against terrorism in Iraq and stop playing out their differences in his country.
Iraq called the meeting to enlist regional support to stop sectarian violence that has racked the country, killed tens of thousands and driven some 2 million abroad since the U.S.-led invasion four years ago that toppled Saddam Hussein.
Two explosions that sounded like mortars rocked the conference venue around lunchtime. A Reuters witness said they appeared to be mortars landing nearby.
Besides finding ways to stop the bloodshed, the one-day meeting is also seen as a rare opportunity for bringing together old enemies Iran and the United States at the same table. “We call on all to take moral responsibility by adopting a strong and clear stance against terrorism in Iraq and cooperate in stamping out forces of terror,” Maliki said, according to the text of his speech to the opening session of the conference, attended by deputy foreign ministers and other such officials from Iran, Syria and the United States. He did not pick out any country individually but the United States has accused Iran and Syria of fomenting violence in Iraq and supplying weapons and support for militant groups, charges both countries deny. Delegates from all three countries attended the conference.
“We … demand that regional or international states refrain from interfering or influencing the Iraqi state of affairs through supporting a certain sect, ethnicity or party,” he said.
The Shi’ite prime minister said national reconciliation between Iraq’s Shi’ite and Sunni factions was the only way to sparing his country from sliding into all-out civil war and preventing the conflict spreading beyond Iraq borders. “The reconciliation initiative is the ship that will save us,” Maliki added. “Iraq with its strategic location, must be seen as a key factor and an important player in the regional and international field.”
The conference brings together mid-level officials from Iraq’s neighbours, the permanent U.N. Security Council members — the United States, Russia, China, Britain and France — and Arab countries. There will be 16 delegations in all.
Maliki also called on officials from regional and world powers to pursue dialogue to settle disputes over Iraq.
“We call for peaceful dialogue to settle disputes, including the international, regional, inter-regional issues,” he said, adding that Iraq was ready to play a positive role in finding a solution to such disputes.
In his speech, Maliki also demanded to see a “unified regional and international stand in suppport of the Iraqi people … with no distinction along sectarian lines.”
“Our meeting with you today in Baghdad demonstrates support for the Iraqi people and Iraq’s national unity government in our effort to confront all forms of terrorism in the country.” “We also wish to have our neighbours’ support for confronting terrorism and look forward to more active international cooperation in reconstruction and development.”
After Maliki’s speech the delegates met behind closed doors for sessions expected to last most of the day.
Attention is also focused on the United States sitting down with Syria and Iran, both accused by Washington of fuelling the Iraq war by supporting either Sunni insurgents or Shi’ite militias. Iran and Syria deny the charges.
The Iranian delegation arrived in the conference hall and took their seats without making any direct contact with U.S. delegates shortly before the meeting officialy opened.
The flags of the delegations were arrayed on the podium of the conference hall, the Stars and Stripes of America next to Russia’s flag, a discreet distance from those of Iran and Syria.
President George W. Bush said the U.S. message to Damascus and Tehran would be clear at Saturday’s conference — to help Iraq’s “young democracy.”
The United States would “defend ourselves and the people in Iraq from weapons shipped in to cause harm”, he added.
While the conference seeks ways to provide regional support for the Iraqi government, it comes against a background of increasing U.S.-Iranian tension over Tehran’s nuclear ambitions.
Washington has led international efforts to impose tougher sanctions on Iran over its refusal to stop enriching uranium, which could be used for nuclear weapons, and has accused Iran of backing Shi’ite militias in southern Iraq. Tehran denies both.
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.
The United States has diplomatic relations with Syria but withdrew its ambassador to Damascus in early 2005 and has not had high-level contacts for the past two years.