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Last Updated: Saturday, 10 March 2007, 13:52 GMT
Analysis: Talks aim at Iraq rescue
By Roger Hardy
BBC Middle East analyst

Aftermath of bomb attack in Baghdad
The meeting comes under the cloud of violence in parts of Iraq
Diplomats from around the world are gathering in Iraq for a conference designed to pull the country back from the abyss.

The event brings together all of Iraq's neighbours and the five permanent members of the UN Security Council.

That means the United States is be sitting round the same table as Iran and Syria - two countries which it has accused of destabilising Iraq.

So the conference raises two interesting questions.

Could it help stabilise Iraq? And could it help defuse the crisis in relations between the US and Iran?

The conference is aimed at persuading Iraq's neighbours to lend at least tacit, if not active, support to the Iraqi government.

"The neighbouring states have hung back from direct engagement with the Iraqi government and the Iraq problem," says Robert Springborg, director of the London Middle East Institute.

The neighbours - the Arab states, Turkey and Iran - share some common fears.

Iraq-Iran border
The US is looking to Iraq's neighbours to secure its borders
They are afraid that Iraq's break-up, or its final descent into all-out civil war, would cause sectarian violence and instability to spill over onto their territory.

"Each neighbour has its own agenda in Iraq," says Roula Khalaf of the Financial Times.

"They each back different groups in Iraq - and that is the main problem for the government."

For its part, the Baghdad government feels caught between the Arab states and Iran, with their rivalries for leadership of the Middle East - and between the United States and Iran, at odds over Iran's nuclear programme and its desire to be a dominant regional power.

Modest expectations

Karim Sadjadpour, an Iranian expert at the Washington think-tank the Carnegie Endowment says that when Iran feels under pressure from the US it reacts by trying to "teach the Americans an expensive lesson in Iraq".

"So if you see a different US approach to Iran, you will see a different Iranian approach to Iraq," he says.

Some analysts see the Bush administration's decision to take part in the Baghdad conference - alongside Iran and Syria - as a sign of softening.

US participants say they do not want to be drawn into direct discussions on the issue of Iran's nuclear programme, but expect a "range of conversations" on the sidelines, and say they won't walk away if approached by the Iranians or Syrians.

But Roula Khalaf thinks it is too soon to speak of a shift in American policy.

She, like other analysts, has modest expectations for the conference.

The Iraqi foreign minister, Hoshyar Zebari, has called the conference an "ice-breaker".

Robert Springborg agrees but warns that, with so much ice around, it will take a long time to thaw.

"As long as President Bush is in the White House and President Ahmadinejad is in office in Tehran," says Karim Sadjadpour, "the depth of mistrust is going to be too great to overcome."

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