BAGHDAD, Iraq – Amidst car bombs and mortars, the United States and antagonist Iran put aside their bitter enmity and held what all sides agreed was a constructive day of talks on ways to restore stability to Iraq. Then, at a press conference, U.S. and Iranian officials let loose with the familiar harsh exchanges.
The results of the seven-hour conference, hosted by Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, may seem meager, consisting of an agreement to set up committees to deal with issues of security, displaced persons and fuel.
Still, it was the first meeting of its kind since U.S. troops invaded Iraq four years ago and toppled the regime of the late dictator Saddam Hussein, and it is likely to lead to a meeting at the foreign minister level in the next month.
“The meeting was constructive and positive in fact in its atmosphere and the composition,” Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari told reporters. “The issues discussed in the meeting were totally focused on Iraq’s security and stability.”
Throughout the talks, U.S. and Iranian officials stayed on opposite sides of a large rectangular table, buffered by 14 other nations, and their body language both during and after the talks suggested they were not quite ready for direct negotiations.
At the news conference that followed, U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad reiterated accusations that Iran was endangering coalition troops by smuggling weapons and funding militias in Iraq.
“They have stated today that they support Iraq, that they support the reconciliation effort,” Khalilzad told reporters. “These are all good sentiments. … They’re good but not sufficient. These good sentiments have to be translated into action.”
As Khalilzad walked out, the Iranian delegation walked in, and the head of the delegation took to the podium to place the blame for instability in Iraq on U.S.- led coalition forces. He called the war and the latest accusations against Iran products of American “intelligence failure.” Then he called for a timetable for withdrawal.
“We think the presence of foreign forces in Iraq cannot help the security of Iraq in the long term,” said Abbas Araghchi, deputy foreign minister for legal and international affairs. “We are in fact facing a vicious cycle in Iraq. The presence of foreign forces in Iraq justifies violence in that country, and violence is used to justify the presence of foreign forces.”
Al-Maliki opened the conference in a cramped auditorium at the foreign ministry compound by asking all participants to commit themselves to the stability of Iraq, to stop supporting the insurgency and take their disputes elsewhere.
Khalilzad briefly shook Araghchi’s hand before they turned away from each other and walked off.
Upstairs in the closed-door sessions, a large rectangular table separated the two delegations. On one side Khalilzad sat with David Satterfield, senior adviser on Iraq to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. On the other Zebari sat with Araghchi on his left. At least seven nations separated the two feuding nations.
In true Baghdad style, the meeting was accompanied by the sounds of two powerful explosions from mortar attacks on the compound a little before 2 p.m. local time. Zebari told the delegate who was speaking to continue.
“I asked the speaker to carry on. You see they are bad targets; they never get it right,” he quipped.
The meeting brought together mid-level ministers from neighboring nations, Arab countries and the five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council.
Washington has accused Iran of endangering coalition troops with deadly homemade bombs of Iranian origin, although the use of the projectiles in fact is thought to have caused a small percentage of total deaths of U.S. soldiers.
Iran, for its part, has charged the United States with responsibility for the kidnapping of an Iranian diplomat in Baghdad and holding five Iranians from an Irbil raid in January. The five men were not diplomats, but worked in a liaison office in the Kurdish city, according to the U.S. and Iraqi governments.
Iraq’s foreign minister described the talks as “friendly” and “professional,” and the U.S.-Iranian exchanges “lively.”
“I think it was very clear about the transit of terrorists, of arms, of weapons, of explosives,” Zebari said. “We as the Iraqi government have raised the issue repeatedly with the respective governments. It is in nobody’s interest to see Iraq fail because there would be a spillover.”
The Iranian delegation told reporters that the meeting was a success and “constructive,” but the U.S. has made mistakes.
“I think Americans are unfortunately suffering from intelligence failure,” Araghchi said. “They have made so many mistakes and wrong policies in Iraq because of false information they had at the beginning. We hope that they don’t repeat the previous mistakes.”