Iranian and U.S. officials will meet within days in Baghdad for a new round of talks as part of efforts to build on recent progress in stemming sectarian violence, Iraq's foreign minister said on Tuesday.
Hoshiyar Zebari also said he was confident Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad would go to Iraq next month, a visit that would be the first by a leader of the Islamic Republic but which could also irritate the United States.
Washington, at odds with Tehran over its nuclear program, wants Shiite Iran to use its influence with Shiite Iraqi militias to stem attacks on U.S. forces and Sunni groups, which are deepening the cycle of sectarian violence in the country.
Iran denies arming and training militias fighting U.S. troops in Iraq, where violence has dropped sharply from levels 18 months ago, largely due to extra U.S. troops, Iranian cooperation to stabilize its neighbor and the emergence of U.S.-backed Sunni militia.
"We're putting all our efforts into organizing the next round of Iranian-American talks in Baghdad. We expect the next round of these talks will start literally in the next few days," Zebari told a news conference during a visit to Moscow.
"We are interested in the success of the negotiations because they could reduce tensions between Iran and other countries and will contribute to the improvement of the situation in Iraq," he said.
The U.S.-Iranian security talks are significant because they are one of the few forums in which officials from the two countries have direct contact. Diplomatic relations between Washington and Iran have been frozen for almost three decades.
U.S. and Iranian officials met several times last year in Baghdad to discuss security in Iraq in talks arranged by the Iraqi government.
"I have a date for the talks," Zebari told Reuters after the news conference.
He did not elaborate but Iran's ISNA news agency quoted an unnamed Iranian official as saying: "Most probably these negotiations will take place ... on Saturday or Sunday in Baghdad. The two parties have firmly agreed on this."
Spokeswoman for the U.S. embassy in Iraq said: "We don't have an agreed upon date."
A visit by Iran's Ahmadinejad to Iraq would symbolize an end to decades of enmity between the two neighbors. Former dictator Saddam Hussein fought a war in the 1980s with Iran, but relations have warmed since Saddam was ousted.
"There is an invitation to President Ahmadinejad to visit Iraq. There is every reason to believe the visit will take place sometime at the beginning of March," Zebari told reporters.
"If this visit takes place then this will be the first visit by an Iranian leader to Iraq for a very long time," Zebari said.
The Iraqi government said last month it had invited Ahmadinejad, who has often railed against the U.S. military presence in Iraq, but gave no date for his visit. Iran's foreign ministry says preparations are underway for a visit this year.
Zebari was in Moscow for talks on reviving trade ties between Russia and Iraq that were shelved because of international sanctions on Saddam Hussein's administration and the violence that followed his removal.
He said Iraq would look at the possibility of re-activating old contracts, including in the oil sector. Russia's LUKOIL wants to revive a $3.7 billion deal to develop West Qurna, one of Iraq's biggest oil fields.
On Monday Zebari and Russia's Finance Minister Alexei Kudrin agreed to write off most of Iraq's $12.9 billion debt to Russia and signed a separate deal opening up Iraq for $4 billion in investment from Russian firms, including LUKOIL.