Iran Remains Up In Air On Iraq Conference

Thursday, March 1st 2007, 6:05 am

By: News On 6

CAIRO, Egypt (AP)_ Iran's level of participation remained uncertain Thursday as Iraq pushed ahead with plans to hold a March 10 conference with its neighbors and key Western countries on the Iraqi security crisis.

Some Arab neighbors like Egypt, for their part, still have grave doubts the gathering will accomplish much.

Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari said Wednesday the Iranians had agreed to participate in a meeting with Iraq's other neighbors. But he said ``they have some questions'' about a separate session that would be held the same day with the five permanent U.N. Security council members _ the United States, Britain, France, Russia and China.

His words seemed to indicate that Iran was at least partly unhappy with the arrangements for the conference. Iran has had little public comment on the conference so far beyond saying it would weigh attending and that it generally supported regional efforts to stabilize Iraq.

In the past, Iranian leaders have accused the United States of trying to use the U.N. Security Council as a way to ``gang up'' on it.

U.N. diplomats said the Iranians might be waiting to see if the United States is prepared to discuss issues other than Iraq at the conference. Or, Iran may be reluctant to go to Iraq and face questions about the discovery of a factory north of Baghdad for assembling roadside bombs from Iranian-made components, the diplomats said, speaking on condition of anonymity because of the issue's sensitivity.

Even as attention focused on whether Iran would attend, some of Iraq's Arab neighbors also remained leery of the conference _ potentially creating another complication.

Iraq's relations with its Arab neighbors have been rocky because of fears that the Shiite-led government is falling under Iran's influence.

Originally, the Iraqi government had been reluctant to endorse the regional conference, fearing pressure from Sunni-dominated regimes, but it dropped those objections last year so long as the gathering was held on Iraqi soil.

Two Arab diplomats in Cairo said Wednesday that the U.S. recently increased pressure on some Arab governments to press them to attend the conference, after they initially had turned down invitations from the Iraqi government. They spoke on condition of anonymity because of the issue's sensitivity.

Syria and Egypt confirmed separately they would attend, but there was no immediate comment from Jordan or Saudi Arabia. Bahrain, Turkey and Kuwait also were invited, along with the Arab League and the Organization of the Islamic Conference.

Each side in the Mideast's widening Shiite-Sunni split has accused another of being responsible for the spiraling violence in Iraq.

Iraqi officials have complained that Sunni countries like Egypt and Saudi Arabia are not doing enough to help calm Iraq, while the Sunni countries in turn blame Iraq's Shiite-led government for failing to rein in death squads and Shiite militias.

Mustafa Alani, an expert in Iraqi affairs at the Gulf Research Center in Dubai, predicted that neighboring Sunni Arab countries thus would use the conference to convey _ along with the United States _ their disquiet at Iran's growing influence.

Arab League Secretary-General Amr Moussa, speaking to reporters Wednesday in Cairo, hinted at the continued Sunni Arab dissatisfaction with Iraq's leaders.

``Iraq is now in a crisis and needs the cooperation of all, including the United States, which is the decision-maker and the one which has an intensive presence there,'' he said.

``Arabs should not be blamed for their position on Iraq. Those who blame Arabs are looking for scapegoats,'' he said.

Moussa's deputy, Ahmed Ben Heli, said Arab foreign ministers would meet in Cairo on Sunday to discuss proposals ``on how to reactivate the Arab role in Iraq.''

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