BAGHDAD, (Reuters) – A U.S.-Iranian committee set up to find ways to quell violence in Iraq will meet next week, Iraq’s foreign minister said on Monday.
The two bitter foes’ ambassadors have met in Baghdad three times since May after a diplomatic freeze that lasted almost 30 years, but have agreed on little of substance except the creation of the committee after their second meeting.
In the latest violence, a mortar attack killed seven inmates at an Interior Ministry jail and Iraqi security officials said a rocket strike started a large fire at a Baghdad oil refinery. But violence in Iraq has declined markedly over the past several months. The general commanding U.S. forces in Anbar, once the most dangerous province for U.S. troops and now one of the safest, said the reduction in violence there was permanent. “The positive trends are permanent,” Marine Corps Major-General Walter Gaskin told reporters in Washington by videolink. “The Anbaris are tired of violence.”
Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshiyar Zebari told a news conference the U.S.-Iranian talks would be held in Baghdad on Dec. 18.
Washington accuses Iran of arming, funding and training Shi’ite militias in Iraq. Tehran rejects this and blames violence, in which tens of thousands of Iraqis have been killed, on the U.S.-led invasion to topple Saddam Hussein in 2003. “This will be a technical meeting, a follow-up to the last meeting of security experts, not at the level of the ambassadors but (deputy chiefs of missions) and security experts,” Zebari said. More ambassadorial talks could be held later, he said.
The U.S. embassy in Baghdad confirmed the date of the next meeting with Iranian officials and said senior diplomat Marcie Ries would head its delegation. Tehran had no immediate comment.
Following the pattern of previous talks, the meeting will focus solely on Iraq’s security, with Iran’s disputed nuclear ambitions again not on the agenda.
The first three meetings coincided with the U.S. military launching a security crackdown, backed by 30,000 extra troops, which it said was designed to pull Iraq back from the brink of civil war between majority Shi’ites and minority Sunni Arabs.
Attacks across Iraq have fallen 60 percent since the extra troops were fully deployed in mid-June, the military says. While the U.S. military remains wary, U.S. officials have softened their rhetoric towards Iran in recent weeks, noting several positive developments in Iranian influence in Iraq.
In Baghdad, several mortar rounds hit the Interior Ministry detention facility early on Monday morning, killing seven inmates and wounding another 21 in their cells, a senior security official told Reuters. The U.S. military said the attack involved rockets rather than mortars. Five inmates died.
The jail mainly houses suspected insurgents. Most of the thousands held in Iraqi jails are Sunni Arabs accused of attacks on civilians, the U.S. military and Iraqi security forces.
The security official said the wounded were still regarded as suspects and were being treated at the jail.
A thick plume of black smoke billowed over southern Baghdad after a Katyusha rocket hit a storage tank at the domestic refinery at Doura early on Monday, police said.
Baghdad security spokesman Qassim Moussawi told Reuters that either a rocket or a mortar round had hit the plant but the U.S. military blamed an industrial accident. Oil Ministry spokesman Assim Jihad said the fire was isolated and under control.
Washington has accused Iran of seeking to develop nuclear weapons, although U.S. intelligence services said this month that Tehran had stopped its nuclear weapons programme four years ago. Iran says its programme is for purely peaceful means.