BAGHDAD (Reuters) - The United States urged Iran on Monday to stop supporting militias in Iraq in the most high-profile meeting between the two countries in almost 30 years that both sides later described as positive.
The rare talks in Baghdad were narrowly focused on Iraq’s spiralling sectarian violence and did not touch on Iran’s controversial nuclear program, which has ratcheted up tensions between the two arch foes in recent months.
“Positive” was how both sides characterized the four-hour meeting that began with a handshake between U.S. ambassador to Iraq Ryan Crocker and his Iranian counterpart Hassan Kazemi-Qomi at Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki’s office in Baghdad.
In new violence in Iraq, a truck bomb exploded near an important Sunni Muslim mosque in central Baghdad, killing 24 people and wounding 68 others shortly after the talks broke up.
The Iranians appeared keen for further talks, with Kazemi-Qomi calling the meeting “a first step in negotiations between these two sides” and saying Tehran would seriously consider an Iraqi invitation for further discussions.
For his part, Crocker said he had been less interested in arranging further meetings than laying out Washington’s case that Shi‘ite Iran is arming, funding and training Shi‘ite militias in Iraq, a charge Iran denies.
He said he did not produce any evidence, although the U.S. military has previously displayed what it says are Iranian-made rockets, mortars and roadside bombs seized in Iraq. The military says the bombs have killed scores of American soldiers.
“The purpose of this effort was not to build a legal case. Presumably the Iranians know what they are doing. Our point was simply to say we know as well. We wanted to say it is dangerous for Iraq and dangerous for the region,” Crocker said.
“The talks proceeded positively. What we need to see is Iranian action on the ground. Right now their actions are running at cross purposes to their stated policy.”
Kazemi-Qomi, speaking at a separate media conference several hours later, said Iran also saw positive steps in the talks.
“Some problems have been raised and studied and I think this was a positive step ... In the political field, the two sides agreed to support and strengthen the Iraqi government, which was another positive item achieved in these talks,” he said.
He said Iran had offered to help train and arm Iraq’s security forces, presently the job of the U.S. military.
The meeting marked a shift in the U.S. policy of shunning almost all contact with Iranian officials since Washington severed formal diplomatic ties with Tehran in 1980, 14 months after Iran’s Islamic Revolution and five months after Americans were seized in a hostage crisis at the U.S. embassy in Tehran.
Crocker said he would refer to Washington a proposal by the Iranians for a mechanism with Iranian, U.S. and Iraqi participation to coordinate Iraqi security matters.
He said he had told the Iranians they must end their support for the militias, stop supplying them with explosives and ammunition and rein in the activities of Iran’s Revolutionary Guards Qods Force in Iraq.
The Iranians had rejected the allegations but did not respond in detail. In turn, they had criticized the “occupying” U.S. military’s training and equipping of the new Iraqi army, saying it was “inadequate to the challenges faced”.
“In terms of what happens next we are going to want to wait and see not what is said next but what happens on the ground, whether we start to see some indications of change of Iranian behavior,” Crocker said.
In a brief address to the delegations before the start of the talks, Maliki said Iraq would not be a launchpad for any attacks on neighboring states, an apparent reference to Iranian fears of a U.S. attack. It would also not brook any regional interference in its affairs, he added.
U.S. and Iranian officials had said they did not expect any breakthroughs from the talks, which come as U.S. warships hold war games in the Gulf and after Tehran said it had uncovered spy networks on its territory run by Washington and its allies.
While mid-ranking officials from Iran and the United States have met occasionally in the past, Monday’s talks are the most high profile since the 1979 Islamic Revolution.
With additional reporting by Mariam Karouny, Mussab Al-Khairalla and Paul Tait in Baghdad and Edmund Blair in Tehran