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US and Iran to Conference on Iraq Violence

Meeting in Baghdad

by PATRICK COCKBURN

in Arbil.
and ANNE PENKETH in Tehran.

Iranian and American officials meet in Baghdad today to discuss Iraqi security but wide differences are expected to prevent the real dialogue which may be essential to end the war in Iraq. The talks will be led by the US and Iranian ambassadors.

The Iraqi government has been trying to get the US and Iran to talk, pointing out that both support the Shia-Kurdish government in Baghdad. Saudi Arabia and other Sunni Arab states largely oppose any such meeting.

Tehran has detained four Iranian-American scholars, charging them with undermining Iran’s security. The US continually claims Iran is arming and financing militants in Iraq but has produced little evidence. Some 45 per cent of the suicide bombers who have pushed Iraq into civil war are from Saudi Arabia.

The Iraqi Foreign Minister, Hoshyar Zebari, says that like it or not, "Iran is a player in Iraq" and should be engaged in dialogue. He has also sought the release of five Iranian officials seized in a US helicopter raid on the Iranian office in Arbil, the Kurdish capital, on January 11.

Three car bombs exploded in Baghdad, one of them 200 yards from an entrance to the US-controlled Green Zone, killing 12 people yesterday. There were two more blasts in the mainly Shia Karadah district of east Baghdad which has been targeted frequently since the start five months ago of the US troop surge aimed at securing control of Baghdad.

Two political killings this week underline the vulnerability of any public figure in Iraq to assassins or suicide bombers. In Taji, a Sunni town north of Baghdad, pro-government tribal leaders were meeting under the protection of the Americans when a suicide bomber who had gained access to the meeting blew himself up, killing five and injuring 12.

In the Shia holy city of Najaf, assassins penetrated security around the house of Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, revered by millions of Iraqi Shia, at the weekend. They stabbed to death one of his senior advisers, Sheikh Abdallah Falk, 50 yards from the ayatollah’s house. If the grand ayatollah had been killed by a Sunni there would have been an explosion of violence in the country.

Despite US attempts to get a raft of legislation, much of it favorable to the Sunni, through parliament there is a political stalemate. The oil and gas bill is stalled. This legislation is impatiently awaited by the Kurds but denounced by Shia and Sunni Arabs as a sell-out of Iraq’s national resources.

There is strong opposition in parliament to US-supported concessions to the Sunni such as a reversal of de-Baathification and fresh provincial elections. The Sunni boycotted these in January 2005 and are under-represented. A new election is not due until 2009. President Jalal Talabani and Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki have been trying to put together a "moderate" alliance of Kurdish, Sunni and Shia parties. Such an administration would exclude followers of the nationalist cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, who have distanced themselves from Mr Maliki, but would also be weak.

PATRICK COCKBURN is the author of ‘The Occupation: War, resistance and daily life in Iraq‘, a finalist for the National Book Critics’ Circle Award for best non-fiction book of 2006.