Iraq’s prime minister appealed Saturday for international help to sever networks aiding extremists and warned envoys from neighbors and world powers that Iraq’s growing sectarian bloodshed could spill across the Middle East.
“Iraq has become a front-line battlefield,” Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki told delegates at a groundbreaking conference that brought together Islamic nations including Iran and Western representatives led by the United States.
“(Iraq) needs support in this battle that not only threatens Iraq but will spill over to all countries in the region,” he added — shortly before mortar shells landed near the conference site and a car bomb exploded in a Shitte stronghold across the city.
Al-Maliki urged for help in stopping financial support, weapon pipelines and “religious cover” for the relentless attacks of car bombings, killings and other attacks that have pitted Iraq’s Sunnis against majority Shiites.
He expressed hope the conference could be a “turning point in supporting the government in facing this huge danger.”
The one-day gathering also is seen as a prime opportunity for some icebreaking overtures between Iran and the United States, whose chief delegate has left open the door for possible one-on-one exchanges about Iraq.
It brought together Iraq’s six neighbors, the five permanent U.N. Security Council members and several Arab representatives. Its primary goal is to pave the way for a high-level meeting possibly next month.
But the meeting also gives a forum to air a wide range of views and concerns including U.S. accusations of weapons smuggling from Iran and Syria, and Arab demands for greater political power for Iraq’s Sunnis.
Security was extremely tight as envoys gathered in Iraq’s Foreign Ministry, which is outside the heavily protected Green Zone. Shortly after the meeting began, at least two mortar shells hit near the Foreign Ministry. There were no immediate reports of casualties.
Al-Maliki said “the terrorism that kills innocents” in Iraq comes from the same root as terrorists attacks around the world since Sept. 11, 2001, in a reference to groups inspired by al-Qaida.
He also delivered an apparent warning to neighbors Syria and Iran to stay away from using Iraq as a proxy battleground for fights against the United States.
“Iraq does not accept that its territories and cities become a field where regional and international disputes are settled,” he said.
All eyes on U.S., Iran relationship
The meeting allows ample time for delegates to mingle and open informal contacts. All eyes will be on any attempts to bridge the nearly 28-year diplomatic estrangement between the United States and Iran.
The chief U.S. delegate, David Satterfield, said Thursday that “we are not going to turn and walk away” if approached by Iran or Syria to discuss Iraq. But Satterfield, the top State Department adviser on Iraq, added that the United States plans to use the meeting to reinforce its accusations against both nations.
They include U.S. claims that Syria allows foreign jihadists and Sunni insurgents to cross its border into Iraq, and that weapon shipments from Iran reach Shiite militias. Both nations deny the allegations.
Iran’s chief envoy, Abbas Araghchi, left Tehran Friday without directly mentioning the United States, but said Iran “hopes to take more steps” to support the U.S.-backed government — which is led by a Shiite prime minister with close ties to Shiite heavyweight Iran.
Iran, however, has strongly denounced the U.S. military presence. The complaints grew more pointed in December after American forces detained two Iranian security agents at the compound of a major Shiite political bloc in Baghdad
Six other Iranians were arrested Jan. 11 at an Iranian liaison office in northern Iraq. The U.S. military said they were members of Iran’s elite Revolutionary Guard — a charge Tehran rejects.
'Stuck together on Iraq'
The showdown over Iran’s nuclear program also lurks behind any attempt to ease the diplomatic freeze with Washington.
“But both Iran and the United States realize they are stuck together on Iraq,” said Alireza Nourizadeh, chief researcher at the London-based Center for Arab-Iranian Studies. “So perhaps they see this meeting as a way to open some doors for bilateral talks.”
For Iran, opening more direct contacts with Washington could help promote their shared interests in Iraq, including trying to stamp out Sunni-led insurgents. U.S. officials, meanwhile, need the support of Iranian-allied political groups in Iraq to keep a lid on Shiite militias.
The U.S. Embassy spokesman in Baghdad, Lou Fintor, did not rule out possible talks between Iran and U.S. delegates. But he told Al-Jazeera television that “no such meeting” was planned in advance.
There have been other chances in the past for one-on-one dialogue between the United States and Iran, but rarely with such promise.
In September, the United States joined Iran and Syria in talks on Iraq — although Washington ruled out direct talks with Iran in advance. This time, however, there is an open invitation to Iran.
And both sides have dispatched well-suited diplomats.
Satterfield has served in posts in Saudi Arabia, Tunisia, Lebanon and Syria, as well as Washington positions including the National Security Council staff. Araghchi did postgraduate studies in England and served as ambassador to Finland. He is regarded as one of Iran’s leading diplomatic strategists on relations with the West.
The meeting also is the first time in nearly two years that Washington is willing to discuss security issues with Iran — at a time when the Pentagon is pumping more than 20,000 troops into a Baghdad crackdown and boosting forces to strongholds of Sunni insurgents northeast of the capital.