February 15, 2008 in Nation/World

Iran delays next round of talks on Iraq

Alexandra Zavis Los Angeles Times

Ahmadinejad will visit Iraq

» Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad will travel to Iraq next month in the first such visit by an Iranian leader, Iraqi officials said Thursday. Invited by Iraqi President Jalal Talabani, Ahmadinejad is scheduled to arrive March 2 for two or three days to discuss bilateral relations, the officials said. He will also meet with Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.

» In Washington, State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said of the planned visit: “We would look for Iran to play a positive role in Iraq’s present as well as its future. It’s not inherently provocative. We don’t know what they are going to do and say there. I guess we will see.”

BAGHDAD – Hopes that Washington and Tehran might soon collaborate to stabilize Iraq dimmed Thursday as Iran postponed a fourth round of negotiations and U.S. officials ratcheted up the accusations against their rival.

Lt. Gen. Raymond T. Odierno, the outgoing U.S. commander of day-to-day operations in Iraq, accused Iran of stirring violence to keep Iraq weak. The Iranian Embassy in Baghdad shrugged off the allegation as “mere rumors.”

Late last year U.S. officials backed away from sweeping claims that the Iranian government was orchestrating the funding, training and equipping of Shiite Muslim militants who have battled U.S. soldiers in Iraq.

Iran has long rejected the accusations and blamed the bloodshed on the presence of American troops.

U.S. commanders acknowledged signs that the Iranian authorities were keeping a vow made to Iraq over the summer to help cut off the flow of support to the militants across the notoriously porous border.

Lately, however, U.S. officials have reported that the number of attacks using the kinds of sophisticated, armor-piercing explosives they allege are supplied by Iran have started to inch back up.

Odierno said Thursday that Shiite fighters backed by Iran were trying to reinsert themselves into Baghdad and “create some chaos.”

“I think they are still funded by Iran. I think there is still training that goes on with these groups. They might have slowed the flow of weapons, but there are still weapons” coming in, Odierno told reporters after handing command to Lt. Gen. Lloyd J. Austin III of the 18th Airborne Corps at a ceremony in one of Saddam Hussein’s former palaces.

“I think Iran wants a weak Iraq,” he said. “And we’ve got to realize that and the Iraqi government has got to realize that.”

Iraqi officials, who have warned both sides that they do not want their country used as a proxy battlefield, said Iran was cooperating on security, including by exerting influence over militiamen loyal to radical Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr.

“They were in my view instrumental in reining in the Mahdi Army, and that led to a sharp drop in sectarian killing,” said Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari.

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