Iraqi premier calls regional meeting for March 10

Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Maliki invited neighbouring countries and world powers on Wednesday to a March 10 meeting in Baghdad, saying he hoped it would help bring reconciliation and support for his government.The conference could open the way for the United States to talk to Syria and Iran, which Washington says are fuelling violence in Iraq. Both countries deny the accusations.The United States said it will take part in the meeting. The official Syrian news agency SANA confirmed Syria would attend, while Iran said it was considering the invitation. France welcomed the conference and said it would participate.

The White House said agreeing to the conference did not amount to a change in policy towards Iran and Syria.

Washington brands both countries sponsors of terrorism and says Iranian elements have provided sophisticated roadside bombs used in Iraq. It accuses Syria of fanning strife in Iraq by failing to control its border.

“This is not a crack in the wall. It is another example of the United States working diplomatically,” White House spokesman Tony Snow told reporters. “We have not rejected this at all. We have from the start supported a regional meeting.” But Washington has spurned suggestions, including in the December report of a high-level Iraq Study Group, that it should reaching out to Iran and Syria to try to stabilise Iraq.

Maliki’s office said he had sent formal invitations to the March 10 meeting to neighbouring countries, Egypt and the five permanent members of the UN Security Council — the United States, Russia, China, Britain and France — as well as the Arab League and the Organisation of the Islamic Conference.

“We hope the meeting will bring political backing for the national unity government in providing security and stability that will help national reconciliation in Iraq,” a statement said.

US President George W. Bush is sending 21,500 extra troops to Iraq, most to Baghdad, where Iraqi and US forces have stepped up security operations to try to halt sectarian violence that threatens to tear the country apart.

A car bomb killed 10 people and wounded 21 near a vegetable market in Baghdad on Wednesday, Iraqi police said, as insurgents kept up a campaign of bombings despite the security crackdown.

Bridge differences?

Ali Larijani, secretary of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council, said Tehran was weighing the Iraqi invitation.

Iranian officials had previously said Tehran was not interested in discussions before US troops pulled out of Iraq.

“In order to help resolve problems in Iraq, Iran will do its utmost. We will attend the meeting if [we reach the conclusion] that it is in Iraq’s interests,” Iran’s state television quoted Larijani as saying.

The Syrian news agency said Syrian officials would attend.

“Talking with the United States about Iraq is a partial step in the right direction. All the problems in the region are interlinked,” a foreign ministry official told SANA.

Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshiyar Zebari said the mid-level March meeting would be a chance for Western and regional powers to try to bridge differences on Iraq. A full ministerial meeting is expected in April, Washington has said.

The State Department did not rule out that US officials might hold bilateral talks with Iranians on the sidelines of the conferences.

But the White House played down the chances of such talks, stressing its position that Iran first suspend uranium enrichment that the United States believes is aimed at developing a nuclear weapon, a charge Tehran denies.

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