March 10, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- Officials from the United States, Iran, and Syria -- plus a dozen other states and regional organizations -- have been meeting in Baghdad. The first-of-its kind conference is aimed at engaging Iraq's neighbors, especially Iran and Syria, in efforts to curb the violence in the country.
U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad called during the conference for Iraq's neighboring states to do more to help the country become stable again.
He said Iraq's neighbors must "act decisively to halt the flow of fighters, weapons, and other lethal support to militias" in the country.
And, according to a copy of his speech delivered at the conference, the U.S. envoy demanded neighboring states "cease sectarian rhetoric and other propaganda that could incite violence."
As the conference opened, Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki made a similar call, urging countries not to play out their differences in Iraq.
"We ask the participants, and through them the international community to be aware of the historic and social specificity of Iraq," al-Maliki said. "[We ask] that some countries or regional or international parts do not seek to have a quota or influence in Iraq through influencing a certain sect or ethnic community or a party."
The closed-door meeting brings together 16 delegations to focus on Iraq as a regional crisis.
They represent Arab states, Iran, Turkey, and the five permanent members of the UN Security Council.
But the focus is very much on three powers: the United States, Iran, and Syria, states that in many ways confront each other in Iraq.
Ahead of the meeting, U.S. President George W. Bush outlined his expectations from Iran and Syria.
"We expect you [Iran and Syria] to help this young democracy," Bush said during a state visit to Brazil. "And we will defend ourselves and the people in Iraq from the weapons being shipped in to cause harm, that we will protect ourselves and help the Iraqi people protect themselves against those who would murder the innocent to achieve political objectives."
Iran, Syria 'Fueling Violence'
Washington charges Iran with helping to fund Iraq's Shi'ite militias and providing them with military expertise and technology.
The United States also accuses Damascus of doing too little to stop the flow of money and foreign fighters to Iraq's Sunni insurgent groups.
In both cases, the groups use the support not only to attack coalition forces trying to stabilize Iraq but also each other. That helps fuel sectarian fighting that many fear will turn into a full-blown civil war if not contained.
Iraqi political analyst Tahsin al-Shaykhli told Radio Free Iraq that Washington was trying to convince neighboring states that all of Iraq's communities can be fairly represented in a peaceful and democratic Iraq.
"The American side is trying, by this participation, to suggest a new vision of the new political process in Iraq," he said. "[This vision is based on the idea] that there isn't any monopoly for one party, even when there is an electoral quota based on democratic mechanisms that led to this result, that there isn't a monopoly of any party in the political process, that no-one should be marginalized, that everyone should take part in the political process, and there must effectively be something which is called a national unity government and not a national participation government."
Iraqi officials say that the U.S., Iranian, and Syrian delegates greeted each other but did not hold any separate talks outside of the general meeting.
During the sessions, two explosions occurred near the venue. They are believed to have been mortar rounds fired into the Green Zone by unknown parties.
No Breakthroughs Expected
On the streets of Baghdad, residents say they will be watching the conference closely for signs it can do something to help rein in the violence.
"In fact, we put all our hopes in this conference as this conference is an international one that will be attended by America, Britain and Russia, the strongest states, in addition to the neighboring countries as Iran and Syria," a man who identified himself as Saad told Reuters. "This conference is considered as a test to Iran and Syria who will [show their readiness] to cooperate with the international states to achieve security and stability for Iraqis."
Few observers expect major breakthroughs today. But there is hope that preparations can be laid for a follow-up, ministerial-level summit next month.
U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said last month that the follow-up meeting should involve the same parties, as well as perhaps the members of the G-8 group of major industrialized nations.
No venue or firm date has yet been set for April's proposed meeting.
(Radio Free Iraq, agencies)
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