Iraq Maliki Holds Diplomatic Conference As Bombs Burst

Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki kicked off Saturday’s regional diplomatic conference in Baghdad by urging the key players to put aside their differences and help reverse Iraq’s relentless spiral into full-blown sectarian civil war.

The need for a peaceful resolution was underscored by a series of mortar explosions outside the building as delegates arrived, and then later as they broke for lunch.

Addressing a total of 16 delegations, the Prime Minister made clear the imperative for countries to help to stamp out the forces of terror in Iraq, refrain from supporting specific sects and stop playing out their conflicts by proxy on Iraqi soil.

He also said he understands his own government’s central role in resolving the crisis. “The reconciliation initiative is the ship that will save us,” said Mr al-Maliki. “Iraq with its strategic location, must be seen as a key factor and an important player in the regional and international field.”

The mid-level conference was attended by the permanent members of the UN Security Council – the United States, Russia, China, Britain and France – as well as Arab countries including Iraq’s immediate neighbors, Iran and Syria.

The US and Iraqi governments have accused Iran and Syria of fomenting sectarian violence in Iraq by smuggling weapons and militants across their borders.

All eyes were on the US and Iran, who have resisted bilateral talks in the wake of the public and acrimonious war of words between US President George Bush and Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad. President Bush has accused Iran of supplying weapons and militants to Shiite insurgents in Iraq and developing nuclear weapons. President Ahmadinejad has denied both charges.

Iranian officials took their places before the conference began without speaking to US delegates. It is not yet known what bilateral discussions took place between delegates behind closed doors later in the afternoon.

Yet while the US agreed to diplomatic talks with Iran for the purpose of stabilizing Iraq, Sunni-led Arab governments in the Middle East intended to use the conference to press the US to help rein in the growing influence of Iran in the region.

Saudi Arabia, Egypt and Jordan remain at odds with the Shiite-led government of Prime Minister al-Maliki, which they believe is acting as a proxy for the Iranian government and deliberately marginalizing Iraq’s minority Sunni population.

Leading the US delegation in Baghdad was Zalmay Khalilzad, outgoing ambassador to Iraq, and David Satterfield, the State Department’s top advisor on Iraq.

It is not expected that the one-day conference will produce the results needed to restore stability in Iraq. However, it is hoped that the meeting will break the ice for high-level diplomatic talks to be held next month, where US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice will attend opposite her Iranian counterpart, Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki.

This second ministerial-level conference in April will also be attended by top diplomats from Canada, Germany, Italy and Japan.

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