After Baghdad Visit, Iran to Attend Mideast 'Neighbors Summit'
Corrected 5/1/07, 3:36 p.m.: Due to an editing error in a previous version, the word "not" was dropped from the third paragraph. The official was making the point that the Iranians should not be given something to attend the meeting.
BAGHDADProspects for Iran to attend Iraq's "neighbors summit" in Egypt suddenly changed after three senior Iranian officials flew into Baghdad to meet with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki.
Until then, the Iranian government had put a condition on its attendance at the summit to be held Thursday and Friday at Egypt's Sharm al-Sheikh resort: the release of five Iranians held by the U.S. military here on suspicion of aiding Shiite bomb-making cells. The five were captured on two separate raids since December, and one is reputed to be a senior officer of al-Quds Brigade, the wing of the Iranian Revolutionary Guard that is involved in supporting terrorist groups abroad. The demand for their release was rejected by the U.S. military command.
"It is my view that we should not be giving them something to show up at a meeting that it is in their own interest to attend," said a senior U.S. official.
The visiting delegation was led by top Iranian national security official Ali Larijanithe highest-ranking Iranian official to visit Iraq since the collapse of Saddam Hussein's regime in 2003who met Sunday with Maliki. Larijani met Monday with Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari and offered Iranian support for Iraq's government.
"We see that Iraq's territories and unity must be preserved," he said, according to the Associated Press.
Now that Iran has agreed to attend the summit, the question is what concessions, if any, it may be prepared to make to help stabilize Iraq. The United States accuses Iran of arming and training Shiite death squads and, by some recent indications, also Sunni fighters.
Shiite Iran has strong ties with many of the Shiite political and military factions in Iraq, but U.S. officials here say they have recently found evidence that Iran also is aiding Sunni terrorists who are part of al Qaeda in Iraq. Officials say evidence of that has been turned up in the nightly raids that U.S. commandos conduct against al Qaeda targets. Earlier this week, for instance, 27 separate targets were hit in one night. Newly formed Sunni tribal militias in Anbar province are also going after al Qaeda.
In what officials here hope is an incipient groundswell against al Qaeda by the Sunni tribes of central and western Iraq, other Sunni tribes in Diyala and Salahuddin have told the U.S.-led coalition that they too want to form militias to fight al Qaeda. This backlash reflects a reaction to Sunni terrorist attacks on civilians and deadly intimidation efforts against tribal leaders.
In Egypt, the spotlight will be on whether Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice meets with diplomats from Iran and Syria. Democrats and the Baker-Hamilton study group have argued for a diplomatic offensive to engage the two countries. A U.S. government official told U.S. News that Rice is open to bilateral meetings at the summit. "Nothing is ruled out," the official said, "but no meetings are scheduled."
Concrete gains may be slim, however. Officials are billing the conference as the next step in what they hope will be an ongoing regional and international diplomatic effort to help quell Iraq's war. The one anticipated outcome is an "International Compact with Iraq" that the United Nations and Iraqi Deputy Prime Minister Barham Saleh have labored to forge for over a year. Over 40 countries have agreed to sign the document, which pledges to provide economic and developmental help to Iraq if it meets a series of economic and political conditions. New aid pledges are expected, but even old pledges made at an earlier conference in Madrid remained unfulfilled.
"The international compact outlines Iraq's vision for political and economic reform," Saleh told U.S. News. "It is important for Iraq to become an international mission. We are not asking for help without any conditions."
Aside from that, the conference may not produce more than a communiqué of supportalthough even that may give a boost to beleaguered Iraq.
"The neighbors' conference is part of a longer-term process," a diplomat said. "It is an opportunity to pull together several circles of Iraq's supporters."
Yet hopes that neighboring governments might announce concrete steps, such as reopening embassies, have faded away amid disputes over real estate and continuing concerns about security. A U.S. government official here says that the most concrete development is likely to be the launching of working groups to address border security, fuel issues and refugeesas millions of Iraqis have fled the ongoing violence to Jordan, Syria, and Egypt.