Conference Is First U.S.-Iran Contact Since 2004

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Saturday's meeting between Iraq, its neighbors and the permanent members of the U.N. Security Council produced the first public contact between officials of the U.S. and Iran since 2004.


This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Liane Hansen. In Iraq, terrorist attacks claimed more innocent lives today. Just yesterday in Baghdad, representatives of 13 countries and other organizations, including the United Nations, met to look for ways to stop the bloodshed. Officials of the United States and Iraq's neighbors, such as Iran and Syria, spoke at the conference about fostering international cooperation on Iraq's future. NPR's Lourdes Garcia-Navarro reports from Baghdad.

LOURDES GARCIA-NAVARRO: Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki began the conference with a plea.

Prime Minister NOURI al-MALIKI (Iraq): (Through translator) We call on the participants of this meeting and the international community to refrain from interfering and influencing the Iraqi state of affairs through supporting a certain sect or party.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: His concern is that Iraq's civil war will escalate into a full-blown proxy battle fueled by the regional powers, and in the last few months tensions have escalated in the region. The United States accuses Iran of providing weapons to Iraqis intent on killing American soldiers. The Iranians in turn say that the American occupation is the cause of the instability. Syria has been accused of aiding the passage of foreign fighters into its troubled neighbor. Saudi Arabia has intimated it won't stand by and watch Sunnis being killed in Iraq.

Iraq's foreign minister, Hoshyar Zebari, spoke after about six hours of meetings, and his verdict was cautiously positive.

Mr. HOSHYAR ZEBARI (Foreign Minister, Iraq): I think this is a very hopeful sign to decrease tension and to create a better atmosphere or a better regional environment to help the Iraqi government policies and strategies to succeed.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: No surprise that the Iranian and American delegations were the biggest and had the highest-level representation. Iranian and American diplomats sat down with each other and others, but there were no one-on-one talks. Iran's nuclear program and other issues not directly related to Iraq were not discussed. U.S. ambassador to Iraq, Zalmay Khalilzad.

Ambassador ZALMAY KHALILZAD (U.S. Ambassador to Iraq): They have stated today that they support Iraq, that they support the reconciliation effort. These are all good sentiments, good statements, and we welcome these statements, but statements are not sufficient, and so the next step is to see that these good sentiments, good statements be translated into concrete action.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: Iranian deputy foreign minister, Abbas Araghchi, also expressed his country's reservations.

Mr. ABBAS ARAGHCHI (Deputy Foreign Minister, Iran): We are concerned about double standards towards terrorism in Iraq. As you know, there are different terrorist groups in Iraq. We have no right to divide these groups to good and bad terrorists. We also raised concerns about how diplomats here. As you know, there are six Iranian diplomats who are abducted.

GARCIA-NAVARRO: In January, the United States arrested six Iranian nationals who they accuse of abetting the violence here. Iran says that they are innocent diplomats with immunity. In terms of concrete results, a decision was taken at the conference to form three regional working groups, on security, oil and refugees.

Another higher-level meeting is expected to take place next month between the participating countries' foreign ministers, possibly in Istanbul. Though security was tight, several mortars landed near where the meeting was taking place. In other parts of the country yesterday, attacks killed over a dozen people, a bloody reminder of the war that still raged outside the conference doors. Lourdes Garcia-Navarro, NPR News, Baghdad.

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