US and Iran arrange talks on Iraq security
Meeting marks break in another diplomatic freeze
BAGHDAD -- The United States and Iran have set a date for ambassador-level talks in Baghdad on the deteriorating security situation in Iraq -- the first such meeting since late May, US and Iraqi officials said yesterday.
The two sides will sit down together tomorrow, according to Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari of Iraq and US Embassy spokesman Philip Reeker, amid US allegations that Tehran is supporting violent Shi'ite militias in the country.
Zebari said by telephone that the discussions would be at the ambassadorial level and would focus on the situation in Iraq, not US-Iran tensions.
Iraq's fragile government has been pressing for another meeting between the two nations with the greatest influence over its future, and Iran has repeatedly signaled its willingness to sit down. State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said last week that Washington was also ready to hold new talks with Iran on the security situation in Iraq.
The May 28 meeting marked a break in a 27-year diplomatic freeze between the US and Iran and was expected to have been followed within a month by a second encounter. But after that meeting, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and other US officials said Iran had not scaled back what the United States says is a concerted effort to arm militants and harm US troops.
Tensions also have risen over Tehran's detention of four Iranian-American scholars and activists charged with endangering national security. The United States has demanded their release, saying the charges against them are false.
At the same time, Iran has called for the release of five Iranians detained in Iraq, who the United States has said are members of Iran's elite Quds Force -- accused of arming and training Iraqi militants. Iran says the five are diplomats in Iraq with permission of the government.
As recently as yesterday, US troops detained two suspected weapons smugglers who may be linked to the Quds force, the military said. The suspects and a number of weapons were seized during a raid on a rural farm compound in eastern Iraq near the Iranian border, according to a statement.
McCormack said the United States wanted to use the meeting to warn Iran against continuing its support for militants in Iraq. He offered no explanation for Washington's apparent change of heart about meeting with Tehran.
Iraq had hoped to arrange a higher-level meeting between Rice and Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki of Iran , but the two exchanged only stiff pleasantries during a recent international conference on Iraq's security in Egypt.
The United States is pursuing a two-track strategy with Iran that reflects the high stakes in any engagement with a nation President Bush accuses of funding terrorism and building a nuclear bomb.
Washington is reaching out tentatively with the talks on Iraq, but also keeping a check on Iran with the Navy conducting exercises in the Persian Gulf this spring and the United States pushing for new UN sanctions against Tehran over its disputed nuclear program.
The United States broke off diplomatic ties with Iran after the 1979 storming of the US Embassy in Tehran and the detention of American hostages for 444 days. Any direct talks between the two nations are rare.
Iran denies the US allegations about its activities in neighboring Iraq, which like Iran has a majority Shi'ite Muslim population.
In Baghdad, two powerful legislators said yesterday that prospects were dim for passage of a US-backed oil bill before Parliament's August vacation, casting a new cloud over a pivotal September progress report that could weigh heavily on the future of the US presence in Iraq.
American officials have pressed Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and Parliament to pass laws the United States deems essential to restoring stability in Iraq, and the oil bill is at the top of the list.
The top American commander in Iraq, General David Petraeus, must report to Congress on progress in Iraq by Sept. 15, and the absence of legislative progress will make it difficult to issue a positive assessment.
Mahmoud Othman, a Kurdish lawmaker, and Abbas al-Bayati, a Shi'ite Turkman parliamentarian, said the oil legislation was not likely to be debated before September because political leaders have been unable to agree on a final draft of the legislation.
"There must first be political consensus between the major blocs on the law, but there is not enough time for this to be done before the August break," said Bayati, a member of the United Iraqi Alliance, the largest Shi'ite bloc in the 275-seat house.
The draft oil legislation, approved by Maliki's Cabinet but not sent to Parliament because of widespread opposition, calls for a fair distribution among Shi'ites, Kurds, and Sunnis of the income from Iraq's massive petroleum resources.
Sunnis, who make up the bulk of the insurgency, have virtually no known oil reserves in their territories, yet oppose the current draft legislation. Kurds, who control large reserves in northern Iraq, oppose the measure because it could loosen their control over a key asset.