Iraq Conference May Let Rice Speak to Syria, Iran
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Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is in the Egyptian resort of Sharm el-Sheikh. She met there today with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki. And tomorrow, she will attend a two-day conference on Iraq. Both Syria and Iran will also be represented at the conference, and Rice says that side meetings with them are possible, even though the Bush administration has shunned both in recent years.
NPR's Peter Kenyon reports.
PETER KENYON: Going into this conference, there is broad agreement on two points - that finding a path out of the bloodshed and mayhem in Iraq is one of the most urgent foreign policy issues of to day, and that no such path is likely to emerge here this week. Instead, attention is focused on potential side meetings - especially one between the U.S. and Iran that may or may not happen.
Professor Joel Beinin at the American University in Cairo says even a brief meeting between U.S. and Iranian diplomats could be a big step forward.
Professor JOEL BEININ (American University, Cairo): Even if it's not an officially announced meeting, it would be the first meeting at the ministerial level between Iran and the United States since the 1979 Iranian revolution. And since there is no solution whatsoever in Iraq without the collaboration of Iran, it would be a very welcome dose of realism should such a meeting take place.
KENYON: Iran - which the U.S. charges with destabilizing Iraq through support of both Shiite and Sunni armed groups - says it's ready to talk, but not to be lectured to. U.S. officials say if Secretary of State Rice does meet with her Iranian counterpart, Manouchehr Mottaki, she will limit the discussion to Iraqi security issues and avoid the subject of Iran's nuclear program.
The two-day conference is divided between economics and trade, and politics and security. The foreign ministers are scheduled to formally launch a previously negotiated compact that the Bush administration says commits Iraq to an open way of doing business. In return, a low no-targets(ph) have been set. Some of Iraq's neighbors are expected to announce additional financial aid - primarily in the form of debt relief.
On the political front, State Department adviser David Satterfield said this week that Washington hopes Sunni Arab states will publicly disavow any support for the Sunni insurgents of either the homegrown or al-Qaida variety.
Mr. DAVID SATTERFIELD (State Department Adviser): And the message there would hopefully be violence by Sunnis - Sunni Arabs in Iraq - is literally killing the hopes in the future of Iraq-Sunni community. It doesn't have support from outside. It provides, in fact, a breeding ground - an environment conducive to the growth of other extremists like al-Qaida who threaten not just the Iraqis, but the region as a whole.
KENYON: But the distrust and skepticism of Iraq's Shiite-led government is palpable among the country's Sunni Arab neighbors. Saudi King Abdullah is said to have refused to meet with Maliki prior to this conference. Saudi analyst Halad al-Batarfi(ph) says many Arabs see Maliki's talk of reconciliation with Sunnis as an empty promise designed to conceal a deliberate campaign of revenge against Sunnis especially in Baghdad.
Mr. HALAD AL-BATARFI (Saudi Analyst): It shows that there is a plan. It's like the Serbian plans. And that's what's happening - whole areas in Baghdad now, it's having ethnic cleansing by the worse kind of atrocities and heinous crimes to force the people to leave or be killed.
KENYON: Iraqi officials and their American backers say the situation in Baghdad is improving, although the neighbors may not yet be aware of it. And Iraqis will use this meeting to make the case that they're serious about reconciliation. But Secretary of State Rice warned against overreaching expectations, telling reporters that it will take some time to overcome suspicions in the region. Meanwhile, the U.S. military announced that 4,000 more American troops are arriving in Baghdad this week.
Peter Kenyon, NPR News, Sharm el-Sheikh, Egypt.