Iraq appeals to neighbors to join terrorism fight
James Palmer, Chronicle Foreign Service
Sunday, March 11, 2007
(03-11) 04:00 PDT Baghdad -- At a conference here that brought together Middle Eastern neighbors and Western delegates to talk about Iraq's security, Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki urged regional and world powers to support his government's struggle to halt the wave of terrorism that has gained a stranglehold on Iraq during the past four years.
"This international epidemic -- the price of which is being paid by the people of Iraq, with Iraq its first theater of confrontation -- needs to be met by an international stand," al-Maliki said Saturday in his opening statement at the one-day meeting.
The prime minister's words were accentuated when two ear-splitting mortar rounds landed within close range of the Foreign Ministry building situated on the outskirts of the fortified Green Zone, which sent some journalists and security forces scurrying for cover but caused no casualties.
"This is part of the threat toward us," Iraqi government spokesman Ali al-Dabbagh told journalists after the shells exploded, as the delegates continued to confer behind closed doors.
While American delegates did not sit down with their Iranian and Syrian counterparts for much-anticipated bilateral talks, they did shake hands before the meetings began and spoke directly to one another, according to al-Dabbagh.
The United States cut diplomatic ties with Iran nearly three decades ago, and relations between the two nations have been further strained over Iran's nuclear program and U.S. assertions that the government is providing arms to both Shiite militias and insurgents in Iraq. The Bush administration also blames Syria for allowing weapons and fighters to flow into Iraq across their porous border.
Saturday's conference -- the first of its kind in Iraq since 1990 -- was attended by 69 delegates representing 13 countries, including the United States, Iran, Syria, Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Kuwait and Turkey. Representatives of the Arab League, the Islamic Conference, the United Nations and the four other permanent members of the U.N. Security Council -- Britain, Russia, China and France -- also were in attendance. Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari led seven envoys representing Iraq.
The most significant result of the talks was an agreement to tackle Iraq's most pressing issues. Zebari said the delegates consented to form committees to address Iraq's security situation, internal displacement and refugee crisis, and its energy resources.
A second conference involving higher-ranking delegates is scheduled for next month, but the location is still a matter of contention. U.S. representatives are pushing for Istanbul, Iraq and Iran are insisting on Baghdad, and others want the second round of talks in Cairo.
At a news conference after Saturday's session, Iranian Deputy Foreign Minister Abbas Araghchi restated his country's demands for a clear timetable for the withdrawal of U.S.-led forces, which he insisted had made Iraq a magnet for extremists from across the Muslim world. "For the sake of peace and stability in Iraq ... we need a timetable for the withdrawal of foreign forces," he said.
Labid Abbawi, a senior Iraqi Foreign Ministry official who attended the meeting, said an argument broke out between the Iranian and U.S. envoys. He would not elaborate.
Another official familiar with the discussions said one U.S. envoy, State Department Iraq expert David Satterfield, pointed to his briefcase during the talks and said it contained documents proving Iran was arming Shiite Muslim militias in Iraq.
"Your accusations are merely a cover for your failures in Iraq," Araghchi said, according to the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to release the information.
U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Zalmay Khalilzad said the focus of Saturday's meeting, which he described as "businesslike, constructive," was intended to enhance Iraq's security and bring stability to the country.
"No country represented at the table would benefit from a disintegrated Iraq," said Khalilzad, who led the U.S. delegation.
The ambassador also appealed for Iraq's neighbors to control their borders in order to "halt the flow of fighters, weapons and other lethal support to militias and other illegal armed groups, and cease sectarian rhetoric and other propaganda that could incite violence."
Al-Maliki advised Sunni-dominated countries such as Saudi Arabia, which have expressed support for changes in the Constitution created under Iraq's Shiite-led government, to respect his country's independence.
"Iraq does not allow itself to intrude on others' affairs, or its territory to be a launching pad for attacks against others," he said. "We, in the meantime, expect to have the same stance from others."
The prime minister also warned neighboring countries not to use his country as a battleground and that Iraq "will not accept that our lands, cities and streets serve as an arena for inter-regional or regional-international disputes."
The Associated Press contributed to this report.