BAGHDAD (Reuters) - Iran will attend a conference of key powers including the United States this week that will focus on stabilizing Iraq, a meeting Baghdad said might be a turning point for regional cooperation in easing the violence.
Iraq’s Foreign Minister Hoshiyar Zebari said on Sunday there was a “high possibility” arch foes Tehran and Washington would hold bilateral talks at the May 3-4 conference in Egypt, although not necessarily at the ministerial level.
U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who will attend the conference in the Red Sea resort of Sharm el-Sheikh, said she would not rule out the possibility of meeting directly with Iran’s foreign minister, Manouchehr Mottaki.
“But what do we need to do? It’s quite obvious,” she told ABC television in the United States.
“Stop the flow of arms to foreign fighters. Stop the flow of foreign fighters across the borders ... Stop stirring up trouble among militias that then go and kill innocent Iraqis. It’s quite clear what needs to be done.”
Tehran said its delegation headed by Mottaki would have the “aim of helping the Iraqi nation and government”.
Washington accuses Iran of destabilizing Iraq and U.S. officials say Rice would probably limit any discussions to this.
Iran denies meddling in Iraq and blames the U.S.-led invasion in 2003 for violence that is threatening to tear Iraq apart and spill over into neighboring countries. Washington is at also loggerheads with Iran over its nuclear program.
The announcement of Iran’s participation followed weeks of intense lobbying by Baghdad, which had sought to persuade Iran to take part despite Tehran’s anger over the detention by U.S. forces of five Iranians in northern Iraq in January.
“It’s important, it would be a major breakthrough and any reduction in tensions will positively impact the situation in Iraq,” Zebari told Reuters, referring to the possibility of Iran-U.S. talks but without saying what he thought the two countries might discuss.
“We don’t want Iraq to be a battleground for settling scores on other agendas at our cost. Really, this has been harming us, damaging us a lot.”
The high-level conference will bring together Iraq’s neighbors, including Syria, as well as officials from G8 nations and the European Union.
It is a follow-up to a meeting of senior officials in Baghdad in March, where Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki urged neighbors to do more to end bloodshed that has killed tens of thousands of Iraqis.
At that meeting, U.S. and Iranian officials had brief talks.
Iran’s decision to attend the meeting in Egypt was formally conveyed to Maliki by senior Iranian official Ali Larijani on a visit to Baghdad.
A statement from Maliki’s office quoted Larijani as saying that countries that wanted stability in the region “have no choice but to support the elected Iraqi government”.
Zebari said Iraq’s neighbors had begun to realize how important it was to stabilize Iraq.
“From my contacts, my trips, there is a gathering sense of the danger of Iraq failing, of chaos spilling across the region, sectarianism getting out of Iraq’s borders, civil war, the disintegration of Iraq,” he said.
“There is a greater sense of these dangers by the region.”
Zebari, who visited Tehran last week, said one reason Iran had been reluctant to say whether it would attend was the detention of the five Iranians in the Kurdish city of Arbil.
Washington says the five are linked with Revolutionary Guard networks that provide explosives and arms to forces inside Iraq to attack U.S. troops. Tehran says they are diplomats.
The meeting could be a turning point for regional cooperation in stabilizing Iraq, Zebari said.
“It would be a turning point indeed in the politics of the region. The participants are all key players in what’s going on here in Iraq. They all have responsibilities,” Zebari said.
A British soldier was shot dead in the southern city of Basra on Sunday, the twelfth to die this month.
Additional reporting by Dean Yates and Ross Colvin in Baghdad and Fredrik Dahl in Tehran