- The Washington Times - Friday, May 26, 2006

BAGHDAD — Iran’s foreign minister yesterday rejected a U.S. offer of direct talks on Iraq as Tehran hardened its position against international pressure to stop its uranium enrichment.

Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki said Iran changed its mind about holding talks with Washington on Iraq because the Americans raised “other issues.” He did not elaborate, but the sides have been sparring over Iran’s nuclear program and Tehran reportedly wants to talk directly to the U.S. on that subject as well.

Mr. Mottaki got a boost from his Iraqi counterpart, who said Iran has the right to peaceful nuclear research — a stance that runs counter to U.S. efforts to force Tehran to stop enriching uranium, an activity that could serve as a stepping stone to atomic weapons.

Mr. Mottaki’s visit, which came nearly a week after the new Iraqi government took office, was only the second by a high-level Iranian delegation since Saddam Hussein was ousted in April 2003.

Also yesterday, Italy announced it would pull 1,100 of its troops from the U.S.-led coalition in June, the first specific numbers about its planned withdrawal. Italy has about 2,700 troops in Iraq, mostly in the southern city of Nasariyah.

Meanwhile, bombs hit three outdoor markets in Baghdad, killing at least 18 persons and wounding more than 60. Sunni leaders closed mosques in the southern city of Basra to protest the drive-by killing of Sunni imam Wafiq al-Hamdani as he was walking to his mosque.

Four police officers, including a lieutenant colonel, were killed in northern Kirkuk, police said. Gunmen also killed a doorman in west Baghdad.

Police said four bodies were found yesterday in Kut, 100 miles southeast of Baghdad, including the corpse of a member of the al-Mahdi Shi’ite militia.

The apparent sectarian attacks provided fresh examples of the difficulties faced by new Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki even as he said two key security posts could be filled within days.

Deputies close to the negotiations said it was doubtful a decision would be made by today, although at least one Shi’ite appeared to be edging toward getting the interior minister portfolio — former national security adviser Mouwafak al-Rubaie.

Iran and the United States had expressed willingness earlier this year to hold meetings on how to stabilize Iraq. But Mr. Mottaki, speaking at a press conference with Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari, said Iran had changed its mind.

“Unfortunately, the American side tried to use this decision as propaganda and they raised some other issues. They tried to create a negative atmosphere,” he said.

Mr. Mottaki later said Iran would strike back against any U.S. attack. “In case the Americans attack Iran anywhere, Iran will respond to the attack,” he said.

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