Iran And Saudi to attend Iraq security meeting


Baghdad has invited its neighbours and permanent members of the UN Security Council to the mid-March conference aimed at tackling the deadly violence that continues to engulf the nation four years after the US-led invasion.

"We will ask all neighbouring countries to stop interfering in Iraqi affairs and to put pressure on the armed groups with whom they have links to end the violence," said Sami al-Askari, political adviser to Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki.

"This means not only Iran and Syria, but also other countries, like Saudi Arabia," the Shiite lawmaker added, in a rare public criticism of the ultra-conservative Sunni-ruled kingdom.

Washington, which has repeatedly accused Tehran and Damascus of fomenting the violence in Iraq, confirmed its attendance and would not rule out possible contacts between US envoys and their Syrian and Iranian opposite numbers.

Askari said those invited were Syria, Iran, Turkey, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, Egypt, the five permanent Security Council members, the Arab League, the Organisation of the Islamic Conference and "maybe" the European Union.

A US-led security plan is struggling to halt the vicious sectarian carnage between Sunni and Shiite armed groups in Baghdad, which has seen a surge in bomb and mortar attacks since Saturday.

Askari said the conference would be held at the level of foreign ministers or their representatives and that it might be an opportunity for Washington to resolve some of its differences with its arch-foe Iran.

"I think that this conference could be the opportunity for Tehran and Washington to meet privately on the sidelines," he said.

Iraq’s Shiite-led government is frustrated about the hostility between its main backer, the United States, and its key neighbour Iran, over the Islamic republic’s nuclear programme and regional ambitions.

"It is an opportunity for all states attending to enunciate their positive vision for Iraq and to play a responsible role in Iraq’s future, contribute to that, including Iran and Syria," US State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said.

McCormack sidestepped questions on whether US officials could meet directly with Iranians or Syrians despite a long-standing embargo on such contacts.

"We’ll see," McCormack said. "At this point I’m not going to try to predict what direction the discussions might take, the interactions might take."

Washington has rejected mounting calls to engage with Syria and Iran on efforts to stabilise Iraq, on Tehran’s nuclear programme and on political crises in Lebanon and the Palestinian territories involving Islamic radicals backed by Damascus and Tehran.

McCormack insisted the Baghdad agenda would focus solely on Iraq.

"I expect it will probably include issues of national reconciliation, building of the economy, and security obviously is an important issue, an interest to the Iraqis as well as us as well as Iraq’s neighbours," he said.

"I expect our representatives at the discussions will be professional in their interactions with all of their counterparts at the talks," he said.

Iraq’s sectarian conflict is threatening to spill over into the region, where Sunni-led states allied to Washington are increasingly concerned with Shiite Iran’s growing influence with Iraq’s Shiite majority and militia.

In Washington, Director of National Intelligence Michael McConnell told senators the situation in Iraq was "moving in a negative direction" and that "the term ‘civil war’ accurately describes key elements of the Iraqi conflict."

"Unless efforts to reverse these conditions gain real traction during the 12-18 month time frame… we assess that the security situation will continue to deteriorate at rates comparable to the latter half of 2006."

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