( Lat ) - The Bush administration opened the door Thursday to one-on-one discussions with both Iran and Syria at this weekend's Baghdad conference, as long as the talks are limited to the subject of peace and stability in Iraq.
``If a discussion emerges which is focused upon these goals in Iraq, they are discussions which, as diplomats, we will proceed with,'' said David Satterfield, State Department coordinator for Iraq and senior adviser to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. ``We are not going to turn and walk away.''
Such talks would constitute the administration's first bilateral meeting with Iranian government representatives in nearly four years. In May 2003, Washington ended a series of tentative exchanges amid charges that Iran had a role in suicide bombings in Saudi Arabia. The Pentagon, under then-Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, pressed hard for a policy of toppling the Tehran government.
Satterfield made clear that the United States has no interest in discussing in Baghdad Iran's alleged nuclear weapons program.
The last bilateral talks with Syria took place in January 2005, when then-Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage visited Damascus. Armitage cited improvements in Syria's efforts to stem the cross-border infiltration of militants into Iraq and expressed concern over Syrian support for terrorist groups. The United States withdrew its ambassador to Damascus the following month, charging Syrian involvement in the assassination of former Lebanese prime minister Rafiq al-Hariri.
The administration has charged both Iran and Syria with undermining peace in Iraq--and, in Iran's case, with providing materiel and training to insurgents there.
Satterfield declined to say whether the U.S. delegation--he and U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Zalmay Khalilzad--would initiate talks outside the main conference, which is to be attended by representatives of Iraq's Arab neighbors, Iran, Turkey, the United States and the other four permanent members of the U.N. Security Council. But he said there will be ample opportunity for bilateral conversations with Tehran and Damascus if warranted.
Satterfield did not specify how the contacts would take place. ``I am not going to give you a blow-by-blow of `Will we approach over orange juice or will we wait until lunch is served,''' he told reporters Thursday.
The conference Saturday is to be followed by talks among foreign ministers next month, with an expanded list of participants to include, among others, representatives of Japan and Canada. Rice has said that she will attend.
The administration has been at pains to characterize the one-day Baghdad meeting--to be held in the Green Zone--as an event initiated and to be hosted by the Iraqi government. Satterfield described it as a ``preparatory meeting'' for the later ministerial talks, and said that it will focus on ``addressing, in a progressive fashion, Iraq's needs, Iraq's undertakings, how best the international community, the neighbors, the region can support Iraq as it moves forward.''
He said that Saturday's session will begin with a statement by Iraq, to be followed by statements from the other participants taking turns. ``We will make clear our own views in our own presentations during the multilateral session regarding the need for support ... for a secure, stable, peaceful, democratic Iraq from all of its neighbors, as well as the broader international community,'' Satterfield said.
The administration, he said, views the conference in the context of what he said are the four pillars of President Bush's new strategy for Iraq--security, political reconciliation, economic development and diplomacy.
While noting that Iraq has taken some steps toward political unification, Satterfield said its Shiite-dominated government needs to make more progress on de-Baathification legislation to bring more Sunnis into national life, as well as on a ``meaningful amnesty'' program to demobilize, disarm and reintegrate ``all armed groups'' in the country.
A separate meeting of Iraq's donor nations is scheduled for March 16 at the United Nations, although Satterfield said that he expects some discussion of outside economic aid in Baghdad. ``Far too little has materialized from the commitments for both direct assistance and debt forgiveness with respect to Iraq,'' he said.
While attention in this country has focused on potential U.S. talks with Iran and Syria, other countries in the Middle East have their own concerns about the Baghdad conference.