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Iraq Transition

U.S. says it's willing to talk with Iran, Syria at Iraq meeting

Story Highlights

• U.S. won't refuse if Iran or Syria wants to talk about stabilizing Iraq, official says
• The three countries will attend multinational meeting Saturday in Baghdad
• Future talks possible between U.S. secretary of state and her Iranian counterpart
• U.S. blames Iran and Syria for roles contributing to violence in Iraq
From Zain Verjee and Elise Labott
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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- The United States is open to bilateral talks with Iran or Syria at a conference in Baghdad this weekend if either country approaches U.S. officials to discuss stabilizing Iraq, a top State Department official said Thursday.

"If we are approached over orange juice by the Syrians or the Iranians to discuss an Iraq-related issue that is germane to this topic -- stable, secure, peaceful, democratic Iraq -- we are not going to turn and walk away," David Satterfield, the State Department's Iraq coordinator, told reporters.

Saturday's conference will bring together Iraq's neighbors as well as the permanent members of the U.N. Security Council -- the United States, Britain, France, Russia and China.

Satterfield and Zalmay Khalilzad, the outgoing U.S. ambassador to Iraq, will represent the United States at the conference.

Satterfield said such talks would depend in part on the attitude of Tehran and Damascus.

"It depends on how discussions evolve, and we are not the only party in those discussions," he told reporters. "What the Iranians and the Syrians choose to do is also part and parcel of this."

The United States does not have formal relations with Iran, but it has been at the table with Iranian officials at previous multilateral talks. Most recently, U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice sat with her Iranian counterpart at a meeting on Iraq on the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly in September.

The Bush administration has faced increased pressure to talk directly with both Iran and Syria about stabilizing Iraq.

The United States has accused Iran of providing deadly explosive devices to insurgents and militias in Iraq for use against U.S. forces.

Senior State Department officials have said that Washington has offered to discuss its concerns about the explosive devices with Iran, in communiques sent to Tehran through third-party channels.

Satterfield acknowledged Thursday that most of the dialogue with Iran has been through third parties, but he said the formal setting of the upcoming conference would provide an opportunity for Iran to hear directly from the United States and other parties about concerns over Iran's behavior in Iraq.

"This is a new and potentially very useful format," Satterfield said. "It is a different kind of conversation."

Spokesman: Rice won't 'hide in the corner'

At a briefing Wednesday, State Department spokesman Sean McCormack refused to rule out the possibility that Rice would meet with her Iranian counterpart at a yet-to-be-scheduled ministerial meeting of the Iraq conference.

"Certainly, if the secretary has an opportunity to raise issues related to the security of our troops, she's not going to shy away from those opportunities, nor is she going to go run and hide in the corner if there's a particular opportunity for an interaction with an Iranian diplomat on issues related to Iraq and Iraqi security," he said.

Satterfield said the Iraq conference will address how the international community can help advance progress on security, political reconciliation and economic reconstruction in Iraq.

He said Iraq needs help from neighbors on securing its borders, particularly from Syria where, he said, foreign terrorists responsible for the majority of bombings in Iraq have been entering the country. Damascus also needs to stop providing refuge to Baathists loyal to Saddam Hussein's former regime who are fueling the insurgency, he said.

Iraq also needs significant financial assistance and debt forgiveness from rich Gulf countries, who Satterfield said have done "far too little" to help.

He voiced hope that more support would be forthcoming once Iraq showed progress on the political and economic fronts.

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State Department official David Satterfield will help lead the U.S. group at the Baghdad conference. Here, he assists Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice last month.


• Interactive: Who's who in Iraq
• Interactive: Sectarian divide


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