U.S. and Iran begin talks in Baghdad

( AP ) - Iran and the United States resumed public diplomacy Monday for the first time in more than a quarter century. The meeting in Baghdad between ambassadors on security in Iraq could produce a chapter in world history for its success or a footnote for its failure.

Iraqi officials said the meeting between U.S. Ambassador Ryan Crocker and Iranian Ambassador Hassan Kazemi Qomi was cordial and focused solely on Iraq.

"There are good intentions and understanding and commitment between the two countries," Ali al-Dabagh, an Iraqi government spokesman, told reporters.

The talks were held at Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki's office in the Green Zone compound in Baghdad. Iraq was being represented at the talks by National Security Adviser Mowaffak al-Rubaie.

Just before 10:30 a.m., al-Maliki greeted the two ambassadors, who shook hands, and led them into a conference room, where the ambassadors sat across the table from each other. Al-Maliki then made a brief statement and left the room.

He told both sides that Iraqis want a stable country free of foreign forces and regional interference. The country should not be turned into a base for terrorist groups, he said. He also said that the U.S.-led forces in Iraq were only here to help build up the army and police and the country would not be used as a launching ground for a U.S. attack on a neighbor, a clear reference to Iran.

"We are sure that securing progress in this meeting would, without doubt, enhance the bridges of trust between the two countries and create a positive atmosphere" that would help them deal with other issues, he said.

Speaking in Tehran, Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki said Monday the talks could lead to future meetings, but only if Washington acknowledges that its Middle East policy has not been successful.

"We are hopeful that Washington's realistic approach to the current issues of Iraq by confessing its failed policy in Iraq and the region and by showing a determination to changing the policy guarantees success of the talks and possible further talks," Mottaki said.

Monday's talks were to have a pinpoint focus: What Washington and Tehran - separately or together - could do to contain the sectarian conflagration in Iraq.

Washington wants Tehran to stop arming, financing and training militants, particularly Shiite militias that are fighting American and Iraqi troops. Tehran wants Washington out of Iraq, period.

"The American side has accusations against Iran and the Iranian side has some remarks on the presence of the American forces on Iraqi lands, which they see as a threat to their government," al-Dabagh said in a briefing to reporters during the closed-door meeting.

But much more encumbers the narrow agenda, primarily Iran's nuclear program and more than a quarter-century of diplomatic estrangement after the 1979 Islamic revolution in Iran.

Further, the Iranian Shiite theocracy fears the Bush administration harbors plans for regime change in Tehran and could act on those desires as it did against Saddam Hussein in Iraq.

Washington and its Sunni Arab allies, on their side, are deeply unnerved by growing Iranian influence in the Middle East and the spread of increasingly radical Islam.

Compounding all that is Iran's open hostility to Israel.

Those issues, combined, are what make this opening of the U.S.-Iranian minuet both so important and so interesting.

Will this first meeting, as the Iraqis openly hope and as the Iranians and Americans may quietly aspire, be sufficiently cordial and productive that a second meeting becomes possible? Should that happen, will a future dialogue involve higher-level officials - perhaps Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Iran's foreign minister?

On Saturday, Crocker was circumspect when asked about prospects for further meetings.

"It's going to start with one meeting and see how it goes," Crocker said. "We're coming prepared to talk about Iraq."

A political aide to al-Maliki told The Associated Press that Iraq hoped to play a mediator's role in easing tensions between the Americans and Iranians, which Iraqi officials have routinely said are being played out in Iraq.

The adviser, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to speak on the matter, said Iraq would remain neutral as regards to its position in the disputes.

"But we want to try to close the gap, to be partners in the dialogue," the official said. "It is time to look forward, not backward."

Many small issues could cloud the talks before they begin. There were U.S. Navy exercises in the Persian Gulf last week and tough talk from President Bush about new U.N. penalties against Tehran over its nuclear program. The United States says Tehran is trying to build a bomb, while Iran says it needs nuclear technology for energy production.

Further complicating the talks, Iran said Saturday that it had uncovered spy rings organized by the United States and its Western allies.

Iran accuses the U.S. of improperly seizing five Iranians in Iraq this spring. The U.S. military is holding the five. Iran says they are diplomats; Washington contends they are intelligence agents.

The U.S. also has complained about the detention or arrest of several Iranian-Americans in Iran in recent weeks. State Department spokesman Tom Casey said that issue was not on the U.S. agenda for Monday.

Regardless, the Baghdad talks are the first of their kind and a small sign that Washington thinks rapprochement is possible after nearly three decades of animosity. Iran, angry over the blunt show of U.S. military power off its coast, almost refused to come.

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