- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 4, 2007

From combined dispatches

U.S. and Iranian officials, in separate remarks yesterday, both left open the possibility of bilateral talks on the sidelines of a regional meeting this week in Baghdad.

Zalmay Khalilzad, the U.S. ambassador to Iraq, said Washington had not decided whether it would meet one-on-one with the Iranians when regional countries and world powers meet Saturday to try to get Iraq’s neighbors to contribute to stabilizing the country.

“We have not decided at this point with regard to anything bilateral [with Iran], but we will be prepared to play our role as constructively as possible,” Mr. Khalilzad said in an interview with CNN yesterday.

“There have been some recent indications that [the Iranians] are interested in a dialogue with regard to Iraq,” he said.

Iranian Foreign Ministry spokesman Mohammed Ali Hosseini, meanwhile, said his country has not decided whether it will attend the Baghdad conference but did not rule out a decision to meet directly with Mr. Khalilzad.

“Recently, the United States has proposed negotiations with Iran through different channels over the Iraq issue,” Mr. Hosseini was quoted as saying by the Associated Press. “Meeting with Americans on the sidelines of the Baghdad conference is not on the agenda of Iran, for the time being.”

The meeting will bring together working-level officials in Baghdad before a second session, involving ministers, as early as next month, U.S. officials said. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has said she would attend the later session.

Mr. Khalilzad said on CNN that the U.S. was “prepared to talk” with the Iranians about U.S. accusations that Iran is sending weapons to Iraqi militants.

He said he was concerned primarily about roadside bombs known as “explosively formed projectiles” (EFPs), which have killed a large number of U.S. soldiers.

“It is my understanding that EFPs do come across the border [from Iran] and there is continuing support and assistance from elements in Iran to elements in Iraq. That continues,” he said. The U.S. military thinks the Quds Force, part of Iran’s Revolutionary Guard, is behind the weapons shipments, he said.

“Should the opportunity arise to talk to the Iranians, we will focus on the weapons that come across the border,” he said. “The purpose of any talks that take place, the bilateral talks, will be very much the security of our forces.”

The United States has no diplomatic relations with Iran and is involved in a war of words to stop Tehran’s nuclear program, which Iran says is aimed solely at producing electricity.

President Bush has stepped up accusations that Iran is backing Shi’ite militants in Iraq. The U.S. military has strengthened its presence in the Gulf and detained several Iranians in Iraq. Washington also is leading a push for stronger sanctions against Iran over its nuclear defiance.

Syria, which has agreed to attend the Baghdad meeting, indicated that its government is hoping to engage the United States.

The Al-Ba’ath state newspaper said in an editorial yesterday that the Baghdad conference should open the way for talks between the two countries, whose relations have been strained for years.

“How could attendees of a conference who are sitting at the same table ignore each other?” said Al-Ba’ath. “The entire region sees in the conference a glimpse of hope and optimism to start a series of solutions.”

Washington accuses Syria of allowing militants to cross into Iraq, a charge Syria denies. Last week, a the Syrian government called Washington’s decision to attend the conference a step toward comprehensive dialogue with Syria on the Middle East.

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