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Iraq plans summit with Iran and Syria

The regional security meeting might include Arab League members and the U.N., but not the United States.

February 02, 2007|Paul Richter and Louise Roug | Times Staff Writers

BAGHDAD — The Iraqi government Thursday invited Iran and Syria to Baghdad for talks next month on regional security, amid growing tension and accusations by the Bush administration of foreign meddling in Iraqi affairs.

Iraqi officials have not invited the United States to the meeting, which also could include Iraq's other neighbors, the United Nations and the Arab League. The meeting is intended to "promote support for the government of Iraq on security and other issues," said Samir Shakir Mahmoud Sumaidy, the Iraqi ambassador to the United States.

Sumaidy, speaking in Washington, said the summit was part of a series of regional gatherings sponsored by Iraq's fledgling government that have not included nations from outside the region. It is tentatively scheduled to start March 10.

The meeting comes at a time when U.S. officials have accused Iran of meddling in Iraq. The Bush administration also has complained that Syria is allowing foreign fighters to cross into Iraq, and it is urging Sunni Arab neighbors to help stabilize the country by applying pressure on their Sunni Muslim allies in Iraq.

U.S. welcomes meeting

But U.S. officials, who have encouraged the Iraqi government to try to work through security issues and to try to win more economic and political support from its neighbors, reacted positively to the summit announcement Thursday.

"We support such an effort by the Iraqi government," said Lou Fintor, a spokesman for the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad. "We have ourselves worked with many of Iraq's neighbors to encourage them to support Iraq, diplomatically and politically."

Iraqi officials, while acknowledging that some Iranians have been involved in violence in Iraq, have said they do not want their country to become a military theater in the rivalries of foreign powers.

"The United States is clearly helping us with our security issues," Sumaidy said. But he added, "We don't want to be the battleground for anyone else's fighting each other, or confronting each other."

U.S. and Iraqi military officials are in discussions about American plans to go on the offensive against Iranian agents who are seen as threatening U.S. troops or Iraqis, the Iraqi ambassador said.

Iraqi forces want "maximum coordination" with the American troops on the issue, Sumaidy said. He said U.S. and Iraqi leaders, including Army Gen. David H. Petraeus, the new U.S. commander in Iraq, might decide that they need to conduct each operation jointly, or at least that the Iraqis be informed of each mission.

The Bush administration has delayed the release of information it says will show Iran is meddling in Iraq, raising concern from some quarters that the evidence is inconclusive.

"Iran is kind of the culprit of the week or the month," said James Dobbins, an international security expert at Rand Corp., who said the Bush administration had produced little compelling evidence that Iran was actively encouraging attacks on U.S. troops in Iraq.

U.S. officials said they were investigating a Jan. 20 insurgent raid in the Shiite Muslim city of Karbala, in which a U.S. soldier was slain and four others were captured before being killed, but have not said whether they believed Iranians were involved.

Some U.S. officials have suspected foreign involvement in the sophisticated attack on a U.S.-Iraqi security compound, which witnesses said was carried out by men wearing American-style uniforms.

"The attack is troubling," Pentagon spokesman Bryan Whitman said, adding that an inquiry was continuing. "There was a level of sophistication to the attack that was concerning."

Whitman would not say who might have been behind the attack. "I know there has been speculation," he said, "but let's let the investigation conclude."

'Very serious' threat seen

In an interview with National Public Radio on Thursday, R. Nicholas Burns, the U.S. undersecretary of State for political affairs, said that Iran posed a "very serious" threat to American interests in Iraq.

Referring to the Karbala attack, Burns said the United States would "try to find those who are responsible and hold them accountable. But right now it's not possible to say exactly who those people were."

President Bush said in his Iraq policy speech Jan. 10 that U.S. forces would go after Iranian agents who threatened Americans. The next day, U.S. troops detained five Iranians during a raid on their office in Irbil, a major city in Iraq's Kurdish north.

Iranian officials long have operated in northern Iraq and have close business ties with Kurdish leaders there. Iranian and Iraqi officials have said the Iranian office issued travel permits and provided other services to Iraqi traders and tourists going to Iran. Iraqi leaders are trying to secure the release of the five men, Iraqi officials have said.

Despite the public face-off, Burns said military conflict with Iran was not inevitable.

"I think that if we're patient and we're skillful, we can have a diplomatic solution to these problems," he said. "We are trying for that diplomatic solution."

Although U.S. officials refuse to open talks with Syria or Iran, other diplomatic contacts in the region have intensified. This week, Zalmay Khalilzad, the outgoing U.S. ambassador to Iraq, traveled to Saudi Arabia, which sent envoys to Iran last month.

Richter reported from Washington and Roug from Baghdad.

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