BAGHDAD, (AP) – The U.S. and Iranian ambassadors to Iraq sat down together Tuesday for their second talks in nearly two months, seeking ways to use their influence to bring stability to Iraq despite rising tensions over Washington’s allegations that Tehran is fueling the violence.
Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki opened the meeting with a statement welcoming the delegates at his headquarters in the heavily fortified Green Zone. Al-Maliki said “terrorism hits all Iraqi population sectors, with no exception,” in his address, according to Iraqi state TV.
The meeting was closed to the media, but photos released by the Iraqi leader’s office showed the participants sitting at three long tables for each delegation linked in triangular fashion and covered with white cloths.
Al-Maliki was joined by Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari, while the U.S. delegation was headed by Ambassador Ryan Crocker and the Iranians by Ambassador Hasan Kazemi Qomi.
The detention of four American-Iranians in Iran has deepened tensions between Washington and Tehran, whose relations already were strained over Iran’s controversial nuclear program and its support for radical militant groups such as Lebanon’s Hezbollah and the Palestinian Hamas and by U.S. military maneuvers in the Persian Gulf.
But State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said Iraq was the only issue on the agenda.
“This is an opportunity for direct engagement on issues solely related to Iraq,” McCormack told reporters in Washington on Monday. “We are going to raise the need for Iran to match its actions with its words in seeking strategic stability in Iraq.”
McCormack said Iran has not taken any steps to help bring about a stable Iraq, a goal he said Iran professes to share with the United States.
“We’ll see, if, as a result of these engagements, they will change their behavior.”
The first round of Iran-U.S. talks, on May 28 in Baghdad, broke a 27-year diplomatic freeze following the 1979 Islamic Revolution and U.S. Embassy takeover in Tehran.
Iran had said this second round would happen last month, but Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and other U.S officials delayed because Iran had not scaled back what Washington alleges is a concerted effort to arm militants and harm U.S. troops in Iraq.
Iraq’s fragile government has been pressing for another meeting between the two nations with the greatest influence over its future.
“What we, as Iraqis, hope to achieve is to build confidence between the two sides,” Labeed Abawi, a senior Foreign Ministry official, told The Associated Press. “There are facts on the ground, and they need to be dealt with.”
McCormack said he expected Iran to bring up the case of five Iranians held in U.S. custody in Iraq and accused of supporting insurgents. Crocker would not raise U.S. concerns about the four Iranian-Americans held for espionage, he said.
Washington has called for their release and says the charges are false.
“No, this meeting is about Iraq,” McCormack said when asked specifically about the case of one of the four, Haleh Esfandiari of the Washington-based Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. “We’ve taken lots of opportunities via the Swiss to raise the case of Haleh Esfandiari as well as other American citizens in Iran. That is being handled in a separate channel.”
Switzerland looks after U.S. interests in Iran.
Iran has called for the release of the five Iranians, who the United States has said are the operations chief and members of Iran’s elite Quds Force, which is accused of arming and training Iraqi militants. Iran says they are diplomats who were legally in Iraq.
But Abawi, the Iraqi Foreign Ministry official, said Baghdad did not want the detentions to dominate the talks “because this will distract from the primary aim and that’s helping Iraq.”
“We will ask the two nations to help us overcome our problems using all possible means,” he said.