- The Washington Times - Thursday, May 17, 2007

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan — Senior U.S. and Iranian officials will meet in Baghdad on May 28 to discuss escalating violence in Iraq, both governments confirmed yesterday.

Iraqi leaders have been pressing the two countries with the most influence on the crisis to help end the turmoil. After reluctant agreement from the Bush administration, the meeting is expected to be the start of the first sustained process of negotiations with Iran since the war began in 2003.

These will be the first high-level talks between Americans and Iranians since a one-day conference in Baghdad in March.

State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Ryan Crocker will head the U.S. delegation and expressed hope that Iran would take action to back up its stated interest in establishing a safe and secure Iraq.

Mr. Crocker said he would raise the issue of purported Iranian aid to Iraqi militants.

Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki, who gave the initial word on the date of the talks during a visit to Pakistan, insisted the presence of U.S. troops is at the root of Iraq’s instability.

“Terrorists say that ‘We are doing this because of the foreign forces,’ and the foreign forces [are] saying that ‘We are here because of the terrorist groups,’ ” Mr. Mottaki told reporters in Islamabad, where he has been attending a meeting of the Organization of the Islamic Conference.

“We do believe that a correct approach to Iraq should look to both points, or both areas of the difficulty,” he added.

Mr. Mottaki said the negotiations would be exclusively about Iraq and that a first meeting in the presence of Iraqi officials would try to set a more detailed agenda.

“Nothing but Iraq is on the agenda,” he said.

Mr. Crocker, speaking before the State Department confirmed the date of the talks, said the United States will be pushing Iran to be a helpful neighbor, and raising charges that Tehran is providing Shi’ite militants in Iraq with armor-piercing roadside bombs that have been used against U.S. troops. Iran has rejected the accusation.

Last year, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice gave Zalmay Khalilzad, then the U.S. ambassador to Iraq, a mandate to open talks with Iran — but only to discuss Iraq. The Iranians initially rejected the offer of direct talks only on Iraq.

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