Iran has postponed a fourth round of talks with the United States in Baghdad on improving security in Iraq, giving no reason for the delay, Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshiyar Zebari said on Thursday.
Zebari – who announced during a trip to Moscow this week that the talks would take place within days -- said they were to have been held on Friday, but were put off at the last minute. He called the Iranian postponement "unfortunate".
A US embassy official said it increasingly appeared that Tehran did not want to hold the dialogue. Iranian officials were not immediately available to comment.
Iraq later said Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad would visit Baghdad on March 2 for talks with Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki and other senior officials in what would be the first visit by a president of the Islamic Republic.
The US-Iranian security talks are one of the few forums in which officials from the two bitter foes have direct contact. Diplomatic ties between Washington and Tehran have been frozen for almost three decades.
"Yesterday we were informed that the Iranians want to postpone this for some time, for some unknown reason," Zebari told Reuters in an interview when asked about the joint talks.
"We had a firm date from both the Iranians and the Americans on the 15th of February and we were in the phase of planning, getting the logistics organised. This is the fourth time that we agreed on a date and they don't show up."
Iraqi government spokesman Ali al-Dabbagh told Reuters that Tehran had requested a postponement of a "few more days". He also said it was unclear why the postponement was sought.
US and Iranian officials met three times last year to seek common ground on stabilising Iraq in talks arranged by the Baghdad government. The last time they met under this mechanism was in August when a security committee held talks.
Washington has used the talks to urge Iran to stop giving weapons and training to Shi'ite militias in Iraq, including armour-piercing bombs known as explosively formed penetrators (EFPs) that have killed hundreds of US troops.
Tehran denies the charges and blames the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003 for violence in its neighbour.
Washington and Tehran are also embroiled in a row over Iran's nuclear ambitions.
US says it’s ready for talks
US embassy spokeswoman Mirembe Nantongo said the Iraqi government had informed the embassy of the postponement.
"We have been ready for weeks. We are happy to sit down for the talks but it's increasingly clear Iran is not," she said.
Zebari said all sides saw value in the dialogue, adding Iran had been helping stem violence in Iraq, partly by stopping some weapons coming across the border.
He also said Iran had been influential in reining in the activities of the Mehdi Army militia of Shi'ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr. The anti-American cleric declared a ceasefire last August that has been credited with helping cut violence.
"The number and amount of weapons and EFP technology, less is coming across the border, according to the Americans and to our intelligence. So on these two accounts they have been helpful," Zebari said.
"It doesn't mean they are not interfering and not intervening. This is a friendly government to Iran and it would be contradictory for them on the one hand to support the government and on the other hand to support the militias or the outlaws."
Iran and Iraq fought an eight-year war in the 1980s in which hundreds of thousands were killed, but ties have improved since Saddam Hussein was ousted in the US-led invasion of Iraq in 2003 and a Shi'ite Islamist-led government came to power.
Dabbagh said Ahmadinejad would visit Iraq for two days at the invitation of President Jalal Talabani.
"It's significant in the sense that Iraq wants to have good relations with Iran (but) there should be no interference in Iraq's internal affairs," Dabbagh said of the visit.
Iran should respect Iraq's choice to have relations with the countries it chose to, he added. (Reuters)
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