Friday, August 10, 2007

U.S. withdrawal needed for security, Iran tells Iraq

U.S. withdrawal needed for security, Iran tells Iraq
By Fredrik Dahl

TEHRAN (Reuters) - An end to violence in Iraq depends on the United States withdrawing its troops, Iran told Iraq's prime minister on Thursday, seeking to deflect accusations from Washington that it is responsible for bloodshed there.

Iraqi Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki, facing deepening political woes at home and U.S. criticism for lack of progress in bridging sectarian divisions, won pledges of support from Shi'ite Iran during a visit to the neighboring country.

With Shi'ite Muslims now also in power in Baghdad, ties have strengthened between the two oil-rich states since 2003, when U.S.-led forces toppled Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, a Sunni Arab who waged an eight-year war against Iran in the 1980s.

But the U.S. military accuses the Islamic Republic of arming and training militias behind some of the violence ravaging Iraq. Iran rejects the charge and blames the presence of U.S. forces, numbering about 162,000, for the mayhem.

"Iran fully backs Iraq's popular government... Iraq's biggest problem is the presence of American forces there," Iran's most powerful figure, Supreme leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, was quoted as telling Maliki in the holy city of Mashhad by the official IRNA news agency.

Khamenei said the Washington wanted to maintain a "puppet government" in Baghdad and called on U.S. forces to withdraw.

"The occupying forces should leave Iraq and let the Iraqis decide about their own faith," he said.

Baghdad has urged both Iran and the United States to negotiate and not fight out their differences on Iraqi soil.


Maliki described his talks in Iran as "successful", his office said in a statement issued in Baghdad.

Iranian media said the two sides had planned to sign security agreements, but few details were released about any concrete results apart from Iranian promises to help provide fuel to Iraq during the winter and with building a refinery.

Tehran and Baghdad are expected to agree a deal soon on a pipeline to transfer crude to refineries in Iran from oilfields in Iraq, whose oil industry has suffered major damage during decades of sanctions and war, Iranian media reports said.

Maliki, who also met Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad and other senior officials, is facing mounting pressure to secure a power-sharing deal among Iraq's warring sects before a U.S. report in September on strategy in Iraq.

But his government is in crisis, with almost half the cabinet ministers quitting or boycotting meetings, and the death toll from sectarian killings is steadily climbing.

"The terrorists want to take control ... but with God's help we foil all their plots," Maliki said.

The visit came after Iraqi, Iranian and U.S. officials on Monday held the first meeting of a committee aimed at improving cooperation on stabilizing Iraq.

It was set up after landmark meetings in Baghdad in May and July between Washington and Tehran, their most high-profile face-to-face dialogue since diplomatic ties were cut shortly after Iran's 1979 Islamic revolution.

Analysts say the two old foes, despite their mutual accusations, have a shared interest in ending the violence in Iraq. Iran wants a friendly government running a stable country while a secure Iraq would enable the United States to pull out.

(Additional reporting by Parisa Hafezi in Tehran and Mariam Karouny in Baghdad)