From combined dispatches
TEHRAN -- Iran's supreme leader, Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, urged visiting Iraqi officials yesterday to ask U.S.-led forces to leave their country and pledged Tehran's cooperation in restoring security to Iraq.
If Iran did intervene militarily in Iraq, the overwhelmingly Shi'ite nation would be expected to assist the Shi'ite majority against a wave of violence perpetrated mainly by the Sunnis, who lost power with the ouster of dictator Saddam Hussein.
"Iran considers the United States to be responsible for all crimes and terrorist acts in Iraq and the suffering and misery of the Iraqi people," Ayatollah Khamenei was quoted as saying after a meeting with Iraqi President Jalal Talabani.
"The Iraqi people may ask the occupiers to leave Iraq by setting a timetable for them. ... In the end, Iraq and its neighbors will remain in this region, while the U.S. will only be there temporarily," he said.
The reference to a timetable appeared to be an attempt to exploit recent arguments between Democrats and Republicans in Washington and a resolution passed Monday night at a "reconciliation" conference of major Iraqi political factions in Cairo.
The latest addition to the dialogue came last night from Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who told Fox News Channel in an interview that conditions for reducing the number of U.S. troops deployed in Iraq could be in place "fairly soon."
"The president has said that as soon as Iraqi forces are ready, we want to see a reduction in our own forces, and I think those days are going to be coming fairly soon when Iraqis are going to be more and more capable of carrying out the functions to secure their own future," she said.
The U.S. Senate last week defeated a Democrat-led effort to set a timetable for withdrawing troops from Iraq, instead voting for a Republican proposal that requires regular updates from the White House until all U.S. troops are withdrawn and the mission is completed. On Friday, the House voted 403-3 against starting immediately a proposal to withdraw from Iraq over six months.
On Monday night in Cairo, leaders of Iraq's Shi'ite, Kurdish and Sunni communities issued a communique "calling for the withdrawal of foreign troops according to a timetable, through putting in place an immediate national program to rebuild the armed forces ... control the borders and the security situation" and end terror attacks.
The conference was attended by Mr. Talabani, who then traveled to Tehran for a three-day official visit.
In Washington yesterday, U.S. officials said the United States would keep troops in Iraq only as long as it takes to stabilize the country.
"President Bush has made our position very clear," said Julie Reside, a State Department spokeswoman. "The coalition remains committed to helping the Iraqi people achieve stability and security as they rebuild their country. We will stay as long as it takes to achieve those goals and no longer."
Ayatollah Khamenei, whose country is overwhelmingly Shi'ite, also offered security guarantees to the Iraqis, many of whom fear the outbreak of civil war between Sunnis and Shi'ites if U.S. forces leave too soon.
"Your security is our own security, and Iran honors Iraq's independence and power," the official Islamic Republic News Agency quoted him as saying. "We will extend assistance to you in those fields."
Mr. Talabani, a Kurd, is the first Iraqi president to visit Iran for nearly four decades, underscoring improving relations since the two countries fought a grueling 1980-1988 war in which hundreds of thousands died.
Several leading figures in the Shi'ite-led interim Iraqi government lived in Iran during the rule of Saddam -- a Sunni Arab -- and retain close ties to the Iranian government.
Iraqi Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari paid a high-profile visit to Tehran in mid-July, and Deputy Prime Minister Ahmad Chalabi, a secular Shi'ite, visited Iran shortly before a visit to Washington this month.
Ayatollah Khamenei commented on the religious, cultural and historical affinity between the two countries after the meeting with Mr. Talabani, who also held talks with Iran's new hard-line prime minister, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, and with Akbar Hashemi Rafsanjani, chairman of the Expediency Council, which resolves legislative disputes.
Well before Monday's conference in Cairo, Iraq's Sunni leaders had been pressing the government to set a timetable for the withdrawal of all foreign troops.
The Cairo statement recognized that goal, but did not lay down a specific time frame -- reflecting instead the government's stance that Iraqi security forces must be built up first.
However, Iraqi Interior Minister Bayan Jabr said U.S.-led forces should be able to leave Iraq by the end of 2006.
"By the middle of next year, we will be 75 percent done in building our forces, and by the end of next year, it will be fully ready," he told the Arab satellite-TV station Al Jazeera.