- The Washington Times - Saturday, March 18, 2006

From combined dispatches

BAGHDAD — The American ambassador said yesterday he wants to talk with the Iranians — but not negotiate — in Baghdad.

“We are not entering into negotiations about Iraq with Iran. The Iraqis will decide the future of Iraq. We have concerns — and I’ve spoken about them — with regard to Iranian policy in Iraq,” U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Zalmay Khalilzad told the Associated Press in an interview.

In Washington, the Bush administration said any meeting would have to involve Iraqi leaders, and it expressed concern that Iran might use such a meeting to divert attention from its nuclear program.

“The concern, therefore, is that it is simply a device by the Iranians to try to divert pressure that they are feeling in New York,” said National Security Adviser Stephen J. Hadley, referring to talks at the U.N. Security Council.

The United States has not decided whether to talk to Iran about its support for armed Shi’ite militias in Iraq, a U.S. official told the AP on the condition of anonymity.

The majority of Iraqis are Shi’ite Muslims. The overwhelming majority of Iranians belong to that sect and are governed by a Shi’ite theocracy.

Many important Shi’ite religious shrines are located in Iraq, meaning that thousands of pilgrims routinely cross the countries’ long, common border.

Iraqi Sunnis objected yesterday to any U.S.-Iranian engagement.

“Iran is interfering deeply in Iraqi affairs, and the Iraqi people are afraid that a deal might be settled between Iran and America at the expense of Iraq’s independence,” said Bashar al-Faydi, a spokesman for the Association of Muslim Scholars.

Mr. Khalilzad said that talks would be limited to Iraq — not the angry U.S. standoff with Tehran over its nuclear program.

The Afghanistan-born Mr. Khalilzad, who can speak with Iranians in a common language — his native Dari is a Persian dialect — insisted there would be no bargaining with Iran.

The 54-year-old ambassador has held talks with Iranians before, when he was envoy to Afghanistan, Iran’s neighbor to the east.

“I was authorized by the president of the United States to talk with the Iranians about our concerns about Afghanistan. So I’m doing the same thing now here,” he said.

“I think we would assume since these discussions are with regard to our concern with Iranian policies in Iraq that [the talks] should be in Baghdad,” Mr. Khalilzad said.

The Iranians said their participation in talks may help Iraqis form a stable government.

“The Islamic Republic of Iran will hold talks with the United States about Iraq to help the process of building a government there, and to support the Iraqi people,” Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki said in a speech to worshippers who had gathered at Tehran University for Friday prayers.

Meanwhile, at the United Nations in New York, Chinese Ambassador Wang Guangya said the Security Council should give Iran “four weeks to six weeks” to comply with demands by the U.N. nuclear watchdog that it halt all uranium enrichment activities.

Speaking before a formal meeting of the council on the crisis, Mr. Wang said: “We must leave sufficient time for diplomacy and for the [U.N. International Atomic Energy Agency] to work … at least four weeks to six weeks.”

Russia’s U.N. ambassador yesterday also spoke in opposition to proposals for the council to demand a quick progress report on Iran’s suspect nuclear program.

He said, reportedly only half in jest, that fast action could lead to the bombing of Iran by June.

Andrey Denisov spoke just before a Security Council meeting in which diplomats considered a revised list of British, French and American proposals for a statement on Iran.

A key sticking point for Russia is a proposal asking Mohamed ElBaradei, the chief of the International Atomic Energy Agency, to deliver a report in two weeks on Iran’s progress toward clearing up suspicions about its nuclear program.

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