- The Washington Times - Wednesday, February 28, 2007

The United States said yesterday it would attend a pair of Iraqi-sponsored regional conferences in Baghdad over the next two months that will also be attended by archfoes Syria and Iran.

The meetings, called by the government of Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, would be a sharp break with the Bush administration’s past refusal to engage with Syria and Iran over the troubled Iraq conflict and growing regional tensions. The U.S. government accuses both of Iraq’s neighbors of fueling insurgent violence against U.S. and Iraqi forces.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, scheduled to attend the second meeting in April with other regional foreign ministers, told a Senate hearing yesterday that Iraq was organizing the meeting and deciding whom to invite.

“We hope [Iran and Syria] seize this opportunity to improve their relations with Iraq — and to work for peace and stability in the region,” she said.

An Iraqi government spokesman said yesterday that Syria has confirmed it will participate in the first meeting, tentatively set for March 10 and 11.

There was no immediate comment from Iran, and U.S. officials insisted yesterday that the diplomatic drive to halt Tehran’s nuclear programs would not be on the table in the Iraq meetings.

The meeting was billed as an opportunity to deal exclusively with Iraq’s deteriorating security situation. Iraqi officials said they plan a preliminary gathering of lower-level envoys from all of the major Middle East powers, the United States and the four other permanent U.N. Security Council powers, and regional organizations such as the Arab League.

Miss Rice and other foreign ministers would then gather in April for a follow-up meeting, at a place still to be determined. The second meeting would also include the four G-8 countries not invited to the March meeting — Canada, Italy, Germany and Japan.

Sami al-Askari, a spokesman for Mr. al-Maliki, told reporters in Baghdad, “We will ask all our neighboring countries to stop interfering in Iraqi affairs and to put pressure on armed groups with whom they have links to end the violence.”

He singled out Iran and Syria, but also Saudi Arabia, a strong U.S. ally.

U.S. officials stressed yesterday that the meeting was an Iraqi initiative. President Bush in December had rejected a similar proposal from the bipartisan Iraq Study Group headed by former Secretary of State James A. Baker III and former Rep. Lee H. Hamilton, Indiana Democrat.

State Department spokesman Sean McCormack would not rule out bilateral meetings between U.S. officials and their Syrian and Iranian counterparts in Baghdad. While Iraq is setting the agenda, he said the United States wants to discuss issues of security for U.S. troops in Iraq, particularly the threat from roadside bombs.

“I’m sure that there are going to be different kinds of discussions, meaning different groupings,” Mr. McCormack said. “I’m not going to exclude any particular interaction at this point.”

It is expected that outgoing U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Zalmay Khalilzad or his successor, Ryan Crocker, would represent the United States at the March meeting.

Even if direct contacts are limited, Syria can claim a diplomatic victory in attending the forum as an equal partner with Washington, according to University of Oklahoma Syrian scholar Joshua Landis. The Bush administration has spurned repeated requests by Syria for high-level direct talks.

The meetings come as U.S. and Iraqi forces have begun a major security push in Baghdad. U.S.-led forces yesterday conducted raids in the largely Shi’ite Sadr City slum, targeting death squads that have been killing Sunnis.

Violence continued to plague the country, with three U.S. soldiers reported killed by a roadside bomb in Baghdad and a fourth U.S. soldier killed in fighting in the town of Diwaniyah, 80 miles south of Baghdad.

And U.S. and Iraqi officials were trying to sort out confusing accounts of an explosion at a popular soccer field in the city of Ramadi, which killed 18 women and children. The U.S. military had conducted a “controlled detonation” of a weapons cache in the area, but U.S. officials said they think the explosion was not linked to the soccer-field bombing.

This article is based in part on wire service reports.

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