At a second meeting with his Iranian counterpart in two months, the US ambassador blasted Tehran on Tuesday for arming and training Shiite militias but agreed to set up a security subcommittee with Iran and Iraq to carry forward work on stabilising the country.South of Baghdad, a suicide tow truck driver killed at least 24 with a huge bomb in the Shiite city of Hillah.
Police and morgue officials said a total of 58 people, including the Hillah victims, were killed or found death nationwide.
Speaking to reporters after the second groundbreaking session with the Iranian envoy, Ambassador Ryan Crocker called the seven-hour meeting â€œfull and frank,â€ diplomatic language for difficult.
The Bush administration does not appear to expect much if anything from the talks but seems willing to go forward with them because the high-powered and bipartisan Iraq Study Group, in a report late last year, recommended contacts with both Iran and Syria in a bid to end or ameliorate outside influences in Iraq as part of a plan to end the conflict.
For its part, Iran appears to be enjoying the spectacle and prestige of negotiating with worldâ€™s only superpower after more than a quarter-century freeze in open diplomatic contact.
â€œWe discussed ways forward, and one of the issues we discussed was the formation of a security subcommittee that would address at an expert or technical level some issues relating to security, be that support for violent militias, Al Qaeda or border security,â€ Crocker said.
But he warned progress was impossible until Iran matched its behaviour on the ground with its declarations backing an independent and stable Iraq.
â€œThe fact is, as we made very clear in todayâ€™s talks, that over the roughly two months since our last meeting weâ€™ve actually seen militia-related activity that could be attributed to Iranian support go up and not down,â€ the envoy said, citing testimony from detainees and confiscated weapons and ammunition as evidence.
â€œWe made it clear to the Iranians that we know what theyâ€™re doing [and] itâ€™s up to them to decide what they want to do about it,â€ he said.
In a later conference call with reporters in Washington, Crocker said portions of the long exchange were heated.
â€œI would not describe this as a shouting match throughout, but we were real clear on what our problems with their behaviour was, and I just didnâ€™t hesitate to let them know,â€ the ambassador said.
Crocker said he expected the session be testy, given the extensive list of US complaints and the overall difficulty of the relationship.
â€œWeâ€™ve got a lot of problems with the Iranians, and face to face weâ€™re not going to pull any punches,â€ the envoy said.
Iranian Ambassador Hassan Kazemi Qomi countered that Tehran was helping Iraq deal with the security situation but Iraqis were â€œvictimised by terror and the presence of foreign forcesâ€ on their territory.
He said his delegation also demanded the release of five Iranians detained by US forces in Iraq. The United States claims the five were linked to Iranâ€™s elite Quds Force which Washington accuses of arming and training Iraqi militiamen. Iran says the five are diplomats who were legally in Iraq.
â€œThere are also Iranian citizens who have been detained on legally entering Iraq. We demanded their release too. We discussed the creation of a mechanism to implement what we achieved in the first round of talks. They [the Americans] acknowledged making mistakes and this is a step forward in itself and itâ€™s now up to the Americans to rectify their mistakes,â€ Qomi said. He told the Associated Press that 20 to 30 other Iranian citizens were in US custody.
The detention of four American-Iranians in Iran has deepened tensions between Washington and Tehran, whose relations were already strained over Iranâ€™s nuclear programme and its support for radical militant groups like Lebanonâ€™s Hizbollah and the Palestinian Hamas and by US military manoeuvres in the Arabian Gulf.
Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari, who chaired the meeting, said experts would meet as early as Wednesday to work out the structure and mechanism of the committee.
â€œWe hope that the next round of talks will be on a higher level if progress is made,â€ he said at a separate news conference after the talks.
The meeting was opened by Prime Minister Nouri Maliki, who issued an impassioned appeal for help from the two nations to stabilise Iraq and warned that fighters fromÂ Â Al Qaeda and other groups in Iraq were now fleeing and finding refuge elsewhere.
â€œWe are hoping that you support stability in Iraq, an Iraq that doesnâ€™t interfere in the affairs of others nor want anyone to meddle in its own affairs,â€ he said, according to excerpts of Malikiâ€™s remarks released by his office.
â€œItâ€™s Iraqâ€™s right to call on everyone to stand beside it to counter the scourge of terror and extremism,â€ he said.
â€œThe world … must stand together and face this dangerous phenomenon and its evils, which have gone beyond the borders of Iraq after terror and Al Qaeda groups received strong blows and are now running away from the fight and moving to other nations.â€ The Hillah bomber struck at 9:00am, according to provincial police, who said the driver of the tow truck detonated his payload in the middle of the Bab al-Mashhad district. Iraqi troops cordoned off the area while fire engines and ambulances rushed to the scene.
Most of the 24 killed and 69 wounded in the blast suffered serious burns, said Ayad Abdul-Zahra of the Hillah general hospital.
Essam Rashid, 32, was selling vegetables at his stall when the blast sent shrapnel flying over his head.
â€œI heard a tremendous explosion followed by a fire ball,â€ he said. â€œThen nearby cars were set ablaze one by one and I saw four or five people struggling to get out of their burning cars.â€ Most of the 24 killed and 69 wounded in the blast suffered serious burns, said Ayad Abdul-Zahra of the Hillah general hospital.
Hillah, about 95 kilometres (60 miles) south of Baghdad, has been the site of some of the deadliest bombings, including a double suicide attack on March 6 that killed 120 people.
Hundreds of demonstrators, meanwhile, marched in the predominantly Shiite district of Shaab in northern Baghdad to protest a US-Iraqi barricade of Husseiniyah, a town on the capitalâ€™s northeastern outskirts that is known as a Shiite militia stronghold. Police issued calls for residents to leave the town, and some said they were running out of food and fuel.
Protesters chanted anti-American slogans and burned what appeared to be a hand-drawn American flag as they demanded an end to the blockade, access to the area for government rescue teams and compensation for families of any casualties.
The US military said it had established cordons around the city after a â€œrecent upswing of violence against coalition forcesâ€ and the construction by fighters of â€œdirt mounds blocking roads into the city.â€ A military release quoted Lt. Col. John Drago, of the 2nd Infantry Division as saying: â€œâ€˜â€™What is going on in Husseiniyah has go to stop.â€ â€œYou want to help the people, but on the other hand you are being attacked by these elements and the lives of my soldiers are threatened,â€ the military statement quoted Drago as saying.