- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Iran said yesterday it is likely to attend a regional conference this month — with the United States and Syria — to address the violence in neighboring Iraq, while the Bush administration insisted its decision to participate did not signal a softening of its hard line against the two foes.

Ali Larijani, Iran’s top national security official, said Tehran was still reviewing the invitation for the March 10 gathering of lower-level ministers in Baghdad. The government of Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki has planned a follow-up meeting of foreign ministers, possibly in April.

“We support solving the problems of Iraq by all means and we will attend the conference if it is expedient,” Mr. Larijani, head of Iran’s Supreme National Security Council, told reporters.

Syria has already agreed to attend the conference.

Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari, in an interview with the Associated Press from Sweden, said Iran had agreed to meet with other regional powers, but “they have some questions” about a separate meeting to be held the same day in Baghdad that would include the United States and the four other permanent members of the U.N. Security Council.

Diplomats expected in Baghdad on March 10 also include U.N. Iraq envoy Ashraf Qazi and representatives from Egypt, the Arab League and the Organization of the Islamic Conference. An Iraqi official said yesterday no one had yet turned down the invitation.

U.S. officials yesterday were at pains to reject the idea that the decision to sit down with Syria and Iran reflected an about-face in U.S. policy. The administration has been sharply critical of both countries, charging them with backing insurgent forces and militias in Iraq that have attacked U.S. troops.

White House spokesman Tony Snow said it was Mr. al-Maliki’s government that organized the gathering and issued the invitations. Mr. Snow said issues like Iran’s suspect nuclear programs would not on the table in Baghdad.

“If you’re suddenly expecting chummy new relations, you’ve created a scenario that is not justified by the facts on the ground or by precedent,” Mr. Snow said.

But critics in Congress and in the Middle East noted that President Bush in December had dismissed a suggestion by the bipartisan Iraq Study Group for just such a regional conference on Iraq.

The Daily Star, an influential Lebanese daily, said in its lead editorial yesterday that the most significant thing about the conference may be that Iraq took the lead in organizing it.

“The Iraqi-led conference may the first sign that the Iraqis are rising up from under a mountain of American mistakes and setting their own security agenda,” the paper said.

There were signs that Mr. al-Maliki’s government was coordinating with Syria and Iran in planning the meeting.

An Iranian press agency reported Monday that Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moallem spoke with Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki and Mr. Zebari to discuss the proposed conference. Syria and Iran restored full diplomatic relations with Iraq in November after a break of 25 years.

Jon Ward contributed to this report.

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