US, Iran trade blame over Iraq at Baghdad talks

153.jpgBAGHDAD (AFP) — The United States and Iran traded accusations over the bloodshed in Iraq on Monday during the first high-level direct official talks between the archfoes in 27 years.US ambassador to Iraq Ryan Crocker accused Iran of fomenting unrest in the country by funnelling weapons and training to extremists, and called on Tehran to live up to its promises to support stability.

His Iranian counterpart Hassan Kazemi Qomi, however, accused the US military of not doing enough to arm Iraqi government forces and said the Islamic republic was prepared to step in and do this itself.

The first such encounter since the two countries severed diplomatic ties in 1980 lasted four hours, and afterwards Iran’s envoy sounded keener on holding further talks than his US counterpart.

Crocker said he had insisted that Iran must back up its stated support for Prime Minister Nouri Maliki’s beleaguered government by halting its backing for armed factions fighting in Iraq.

“The purpose of our efforts in this meeting was not to build a legal case — presumably the Iranians know what they were doing — our point was simply to say what we know as well, this is dangerous for Iraq,” he said.

The Iranians proposed creating a trilateral security commission involving Iraqis and US representatives — a suggestion the US ambassador appeared to dismiss.

“What we are doing today effectively was a security committee because on the level of policy there isn’t a great deal to argue about,” he said.

Crocker said the Iranians did not address specific US complaints, but instead criticised the American occupation as a whole and complained that US efforts to train Iraqi security forces were inadequate.

Kazemi Qomi described the meeting as positive but blamed the violence in Iraq on the US military presence. He also offered to arm the Iraqi government.

“The Iraqi government is in need of strong military and security structure to confront its security problems and we have offered all forms of assistance such as weapons, training and equipment,” he told reporters.

“The negotiations today were an important first step between the two sides,” he said. “The Iraqi government said it will invite the two sides to resume negotiations and we received this proposal positively.” Kazemi Qomi added, however, that he would have to consult with Tehran, and one of his assistants said no date had been set for a follow-up meeting.

“The Iraqi government needs to strengthen the armed forces and it needs other countries’ help such as Iran which is experienced in security crisis management,” the ambassador later told Iranian state television.

There had been little expectation that the envoys would see eye-to-eye over the Iraq crisis, with the foreign ministry in Tehran on the eve of the talks accusing US agents of sponsoring subversion in its border provinces.

Washington has dismissed similar accusations in the past, but mutual distrust continues to chill Iranian-American relations a quarter of a century after US embassy diplomats in Tehran were held hostage for 444 days.

The United States accuses Iran’s Revolutionary Guards of supplying armed groups in Iraq with armour-piercing roadside bombs that have been blamed for the deaths of hundreds of the 3,455 American troops killed in the conflict.

US forces are holding seven alleged Revolutionary Guards agents detained in Iraq on suspicion of subversion, men Iran adamantly insists are diplomats. Crocker said the subject of the detainees was not raised.

Both countries are also at loggerheads over Iran’s nuclear drive, but the issue was ruled off the agenda ahead of Monday’s talks.

“It would not have been reasonable that a single meeting was going to produce instant, measurable positive results,” Crocker later told journalists in Washington through a telephone link-up.

“I was somewhat encouraged that the Iranians took the opportunity to lay out their policy in positive terms,” he said, but he was noncommittal on whether there would be a follow-up.

“Basically this was an exchange of policy views on the part of all three of us,” said the ambassador. He stressed it was not a US-Iran bilateral session but a meeting led “in a very real sense” by the Iraqis.

As to US charges that Iran was supporting Iraqi armed factions, “there was no acknowledgement” from the Iranians, he said.

Crocker said the atmosphere was “business-like” and that the three sides drank tea together while English, Farsi and Arabic were all spoken during the encounter.

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