By Steve Negus, Iraq Correspondent
Published: March 10 2007 02:00 | Last updated: March 10 2007 02:00
Iraq says it will propose concrete measures to help stabilise the country at today's conference in Baghdad, which brings regional powers to the table alongside the US and Britain.
Hoshyar Zebari, Iraq's foreign minister, said yesterday the conference would produce "actions . . . not [just] statements of solidarity or support", adding: "We have developed some ideas how to hold" neighbouring countries to such commitments.
One of the key developments at the meeting - the largest international gathering in the country since 1990 - will be the presence at the same table of delegates from Washington and Tehran.
US officials accuse Iranian intelligence networks of forming client networks among Iraq's Shia militias and providing them with a particularly deadly model of roadside bomb, possibly in an attempt to deter an American strike against Iran's nuclear programme.
Mr Zebari said that the conference "gives [Iran] an opportunity, because they are under siege . . . they need an opening to show that they are willing to talk, to discuss, to live up to their commitments [to help build a stable Iraq]."
The meeting will put Washington's representative at the same table with Syria, which the US accuses of backing militants in Iraq, and will also pull in Sunni Arab states that distrust both Iran and Iraq's Shia-led government.
"Their very presence here, having the meeting in Baghdad itself, is a major success," Mr Zebari said. "It hasn't come easily."
He said "persistent and consistent lobbying" had been necessary to bring all of the countries to the table. "Many of them were cornered," he said, saying that when some countries refused to send ministers Iraq would say they were welcome to send more junior officials.
Iraq had earlier played down expectations for the meeting, describing it as an "ice-breaking" event, to be followed up by a higher-level ministerial conference at a later date.
The US has made clear that it will not be drawn into direct negotiations with Tehran over its nuclear programme because of Iran's refusal to suspend its enrichment of uranium.
But David Satterfield, the State Department's Iraq co-ordinator, made clear that the US would not walk away from the opportunity to discuss a stable and democratic Iraq with Iran and Syria.
Iraq is also seeking the support of its Arab Sunni neighbours, which have expressed fears about the ascendancy of Shia Islamist parties in Iraq.
The Arab League this week said its delegation to the conference would press for changes to Iraq's constitution to give Sunni more political power, prompting anger from Iraq's government.
Mr Zebari, however, said Sunni states such as Saudi Arabia needed to recognise the independence of Iraq's Shia from Iran. "Is it a good thing to go and build a Sunni front against the Shia?" he asked. "If you push them, you consider that they are all on the part of Iran, maybe this is what Iran wants, and it plays into their hands."
Copyright The Financial Times Limited 2007