Iran tells PM Maliki it is helping secure Iraq
TEHRAN (Reuters) - Iran told Iraq's prime minister on Wednesday it was helping establish security in Iraq, where the U.S. military accuses Tehran of fomenting instability by training and supplying militants.
Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, in Iran for talks with senior officials, is facing mounting pressure to secure a power sharing deal among Iraq's warring sects before a U.S. report in September on strategy there.
But his government is crumbling, with almost half the cabinet ministers quitting or boycotting meetings, and the death toll from sectarian killings steadily climbing.
Iran, with a majority of Shi'ite Muslims like Iraq, has been an important political player there since the 2003 U.S. invasion. Tehran denies Washington's accusations that it is stoking violence, and instead blames the U.S. occupation.
Baghdad has urged both countries to negotiate and not fight out their differences on Iraqi soil.
"The Islamic Republic of Iran has always made a special effort to help provide and strengthen security in Iraq," Iranian First Vice-President Parviz Davoudi said in talks with Maliki, the official IRNA news agency reported.
Iran has in the past made expressions of support that have been followed by U.S. charges it is still backing militants.
Maliki's visit comes two days after Iraqi, Iranian and U.S. officials held the first meeting of a committee aimed at improving cooperation on stabilizing Iraq.
That committee was formed after groundbreaking talks in May and July, also in Baghdad, between Washington and Tehran, their most high-profile meetings since diplomatic ties were cut shortly after Iran's 1979 Islamic revolution.
Ali Akbar Velayati, an international affairs adviser to Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, said those talks had shown that Iran "can play an influential role in Iraq."
"Today they (U.S. officials) are forced ... to ask for Iran's help, but these negotiations are not aimed at helping America. Iran entered talks to help the Iraqi people," he said, according to Iran's ISNA news agency.
Analysts say both Tehran and Washington have an interest in helping Maliki's government restore calm.
Iran, which has powerful friends among Iraq's leading political factions, wants a stable neighbor with a friendly Shi'ite government in power. For the United States, a secure Iraq could help hasten its own withdrawal.
But Iranian analysts caution against overstating Tehran's ability to stem the violence.
"Iran definitely has some influence in Iraq and sometimes this influence is exaggerated. People sometimes say Iran has control of many Shi'ite militias. But I think in fact Iran has limited influence," said one Iranian political analyst.
Defense Secretary Robert Gates said on Sunday he was disappointed with the lack of progress on reconciliation by Maliki, whose government faces a crisis with 17 ministers -- almost half his cabinet -- quitting or staging boycotts.
Maliki flew to Iran from Turkey, where he pledged to crack down on Kurdish rebels who use northern Iraq as a base.
His visit to Iran also coincides with a security meeting on Iraq in Damascus, where Iraq called on Saudi Arabia and Syria to stem the flow of fighters crossing into the country.
The United States, Britain, Jordan and Iran are also represented at the two days of talks that end on Thursday.
(Additional reporting by Khaled Yacoub Oweis in Damascus)