Iraq Hopes for Thaw in U.S.-Iran Relations

( Lat ) - Like a frustrated in-law trying to unite a feuding couple, Iraq is hoping for a thaw in U.S.-Iran relations when representatives of the countries meet in Baghdad Saturday for their first public encounter in more than two years.

Just getting the two to sit at the same table is a breakthrough, considering how unlikely the event seemed just weeks ago. But analysts warn of unreasonable expectations from this first date. At best, they say, it is a chance to chip away at some of the ice coating Washington-Tehran relations, which have become even frostier because of U.S. accusations that Iran is sending bombs to Iraqi Shiites attacking U.S. troops.

``That's useful in and of itself,'' said Jonathan Alterman of the Center for Strategic Studies in Washington. ``Diplomacy is about processes, not successes. You get successes through processes.''

This process began in December, when Iraq's government decided to invite regional foreign ministers to Baghdad for a security conference. It ballooned into a global gathering fraught with diplomatic baggage as Iraqi officials, not wanting to leave crucial players out of the loop, expanded the invitation list. In addition to Iraq, Iran, and the United States, others attending are representatives of the permanent members of the U.N. Security Council; the Arab League; and Iraq's neighbors.

The meeting is sure to highlight the tangled loyalties, resentments and suspicions in the region, which fears the spread of Iraq's sectarian and ethnic strife, as well as the continued flow of refugees out of the country.

The United States sent David Satterfield, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice's special adviser on Iraq, and U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad. Iran's deputy foreign minister, Abbas Araghchi, was leading his country's delegation.

Both countries remained coy about whether they would hold private talks. Neither said they would seek them out, but neither said they would reject them.

Iraq's deputy foreign minister, Labeed Abawi, hinted that his country was hoping for movement in that direction. While Iraq wants the conference to focus on its security, ``maybe it will open up a constructive dialogue on other regional issues,'' Abawi said.

Talks with Iran and Syria were a key recommendation of the Iraq Study Group's report in December. President Bush initially rejected the idea. The White House, eager to not be seen as caving into pressure, insisted that attendance at this meeting did not constitute a policy shift.

During a visit to Sao Paulo, Brazil, on Friday, Bush said U.S. participation was aimed purely at helping Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's government.

``We'll see how it goes, but I'm happy to have supported the prime minister's request that this meeting take place,'' he said.

Still, the U.S. participation was seen by some as a major adjustment in White House strategy.

``This meeting is incredibly important from a psychological point of view,'' said Joost Hiltermann, a Middle East expert with the International Crisis Group in Amman, Jordan. Not only does it represent a ``sea change'' in U.S. policy, it is bringing together neighbors who despite their differences want to see some good come to Iraq, Hiltermann said. ``This is a very important basis for future talks.''

The U.S.-Iranian issue is just one of many hanging over al-Maliki's head. He needs the help of his neighbors, among them Sunni Arab states critical of his Shiite-led government, to rebuild Iraq.

They include Syria, an Iranian ally. The United States accuses it of fueling Iraq's violence by allowing the unfettered flow of anti-U.S. insurgents over its border, and also of meddling in Lebanon's affairs.

``Our message to the Syrians and Iranians won't change'' at the meeting, Bush said.

Other neighbors include Jordan and Saudi Arabia, Sunni Arab states that joined fellow Arab League nations last week in accusing al-Maliki of sidelining Iraqi's Sunni minority. The Arab League said it planned to use the conference to call for constitutional reforms to give non-Shiites more power, a statement that sparked angry responses from Iraq's government and leading Shiite clerics.

Abdul-Aziz al-Hakim, considered Iraq's most powerful Shiite political leader, alluded to the Arab League statement Friday in a speech to about 3 million Shiite pilgrims gathered for a religious festival in the city of Karbala. Al-Hakim said the criticisms of the Shiite-dominated government ignored the accomplishments of Iraq since the overthrow of Saddam Hussein's Sunni-led regime, and he told other nations not to try to push Iraq around.

``We warn about the dangers of imposing special regional or international goals'' opposed to what Iraq wants, Hakim said, a statement that added to concerns that sniping in advance of the meeting could get things off to a rocky start.

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