US, Iran to meet on Iraq despite tensions

( AFP ) - Tough talk on Iran's nuclear program has raised the specter of a possible US attack, but tensions between the two diplomatic foes nevertheless appear to have eased on the issue of securing Iraq.

Iran's Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki said on Tuesday that Iran had accepted an invitation by Washington for a fourth round of bilateral talks on curbing bloodshed in Iran's violence-wracked western neighbor.

" Iran has agreed with this request within the framework of its policy of helping the Iraqi people," Mottaki told reporters.

"The exact date of the fourth round of the talks will be announced in the near future" in Iraq, he said.

He said Washington had requested the new talks through the Swiss embassy in Tehran, which looks after US interests in Iran in the absence of a US mission.

The United States broke off diplomatic ties with Iran in the aftermath of the 1979 Islamic revolution.

US State Department spokesman Sean McCormack confirmed the talks were planned but did not specify a date.

"We have communicated to the Iranian Government that we are agreeable to that. We have not yet received back a reply," he told reporters on Tuesday.

"We are open to using this channel as a way of talking directly about important issues concerning security in Iraq. We don't yet have a date."

A major source of diplomatic tension between Washington and Tehran is Iran's nuclear program. The United States has stepped up sanctions on Tehran to punish it for what it believes is a drive to make nuclear arms.

Iran insists its uranium enrichment activities are aimed at generating power for civilian use.

US President George W. Bush last month raised the prospect of a "World War III" if Iran acquires the knowledge to build nuclear weapons. Vice President Dick Cheney later warned of "serious consequences" if Iran continues to enrich uranium.

Such rhetoric is not expected to feature in the next Iraq talks, however. The United States has accused Iran of arming Shiite insurgents who have killed US troops in Iraq, but progress on this front has been reported in recent weeks.

US General James Simmons, a deputy corps commander in Iraq, said on November 15 that Iran appeared to be holding to its pledge to stem the flow of arms into Iraq, contributing to a sharp fall in roadside bomb attacks there in recent months.

He said there was no evidence that the flow of weapons across the border form Iran was continuing. "We believe that this indicates the commitments Iran has made appear to be holding up," the general said.

In another possible sign of diplomatic detente over Iraq, nine Iranians held there on suspicion of aiding insurgents were freed by the US military this month, including two members of Iran's elite Al-Quds force.

A senior Iraqi Shiite leader, Abdel Aziz al-Hakim, later said he had information from US officials that more Iranians would be released soon. Iran also opened two consulates in the main Iraqi Kurdish towns of Erbil and Sulaimaniyah.

In another significant diplomatic move, meanwhile, the United States shelved a controversial 75-million-dollar funding package for Iranian political groups opposed to Tehran's hardline Islamic regime.

The program's former director Scott Carpenter complained in an interview with the New York Sun that this move, handing the money back to the US State Department's Iranian affairs office, "pretty much kills the Iran democracy program."

"The Iran office is worried about the bilateral policy," Carpenter was quoted as saying by the newspaper. "I think they are not committed to this anymore."

US ambassador to Iraq Ryan Crocker and his Iranian counterpart Hassan Kazemi Qomi have held two sets of face-to-face talks on May 28 and July 24, the highest level public contacts between the two countries for 27 years.

The two sides also met at experts' level on August 6 but no meeting has been held since then. The sheer fact that talks were held was hailed as a landmark event, given the acrimonious history.

The top US military chief Admiral Michael Mullen Tuesday refused to rule out the military option over Iran's nuclear program, but stressed that "doesn't mean it would be used," adding that "diplomacy is very important."

"I think on issues like this it is worth exercising a little bit of patience," Crocker said on November 3.

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