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The United States and Iran have set a date for ambassador-level talks in Baghdad on the deteriorating security situation in Iraq - the first such meeting since late May, US and Iraqi officials said Sunday.
The two sides will sit down together on Tuesday, according to Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari and US Embassy spokesman Philip Reeker, amid US allegations that Teheran is supporting violent Shiite militias in the country, but Zebari's comment was the first confirmation of a date.
"I can confirm that the United States and Iran have agreed to meet on July 24th in Baghdad," Zebari told The Associated Press in a telephone interview. He said the discussions would be at the ambassadorial level and would focus on the situation in Iraq as opposed to US-Iran tensions. Reeker also confirmed the date but said he had no other information to what has previously been announced.
State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said Tuesday that Washington was ready to hold new direct talks with Iran on the security situation in Iraq.
Iraq's fragile government has been pressing for another meeting between the two nations with the greatest influence over its future, and Iran has repeatedly signaled its willingness to sit down.
The May 28 meeting marked a break in a 27-year diplomatic freeze and was expected to have been followed within a month by a second encounter. But following that meeting, U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and other U.S. officials said Iran had not scaled back what the United States alleges is a concerted effort to arm militants and harm U.S. troops.
Tensions also have risen over Tehran's detention of four Iranian-American scholars and activists charged with endangering national security. The U.S. has demanded their release, saying the charges against them are false.
At the same time, Iran has called for the release of five Iranians detained in Iraq, whom the United States has said are the operations chief and other members of Iran s elite Quds Force, which is accused of arming and training Iraqi militants. Iran says the five are diplomats in Iraq with permission of the government.
As recently as Sunday, U.S. troops detained two suspected weapons smugglers who may linked to Iran's elite Quds force, the military said. The suspects and a number of weapons were seized during a raid on a rural farm compound in eastern Iraq, near the Iranian border, according to the statement.
"The suspects may be associated with a network of terrorists that have been smuggling explosively formed projectiles (EFPs), other weapons, personnel and money from Iran into Iraq," the military said, referring to powerful, armor-piercing roadside bombs that have killed hundreds of American forces.
McCormack said the U.S. wanted to use the meeting to warn Iran against continuing its support for militants, and he offered no explanation for the apparent change of heart about meeting with Tehran.
Iraq had hoped to arrange a higher-level meeting between Rice and Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki, but the two exchanged only stiff pleasantries during a recent international conference on Iraq's security in Egypt.
The United States is pursuing a two-track strategy with Iran that reflects the high stakes in any engagement with a nation President Bush accuses of bankrolling terrorism and building a nuclear bomb.
The fitful talks in Baghdad are one element. Then there are the U.S. Navy's exercises in the Persian Gulf this spring and a U.S. push to impose new U.N. sanctions on Iran over its disputed nuclear program.
The United States broke off diplomatic ties with Iran following the 1979 storming of the U.S. Embassy in Tehran and the holding of American hostages for 444 days.
Any direct talks between the two nations are rare, and even fleeting encounters at larger gatherings or diplomatic dinners are scrutinized for clues to the future of a troubled relationship.
Iran denies the US allegations about its activities in neighboring Iraq, which like Iran has a majority Shiite Muslim population.
In Baghdad, two powerful legislators said on Sunday prospects were dim for passage of the a US-backed oil law before parliament's August vacation, casting a new cloud over a pivotal September progress report that could weigh heavily on the future of the US military presence in Iraq.
American officials have pressed Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and parliament to pass laws that Washington deems essential to restoring stability in Iraq - the oil law is at the top of the list.
Absent progress of legislative matters and sectarian reconciliation, there is flagging support in Congress for keeping American soldiers, Marines and Air Force personnel in the country.
Mahmoud Othman, a Kurdish lawmaker, and Abbas al-Bayati, a Shiite Turkman parliamentarian, said the oil law was not likely to be debated before September because political leaders have been unable to agree on a final draft of the legislation.
"There must first be political consensus between the major blocs on the law but there is not enough time for this to be done before the August break," said al-Bayati, a member of the United Iraqi Alliance, the largest Shi'ite bloc in the 275-seat house.
The oil law, approved by al-Maliki's Cabinet but not sent to parliament because of major opposition, calls for a fair distribution among Shiites, Kurds and Sunnis of the income from Iraq's massive petroleum resources .
Sunnis, who make up the bulk of the insurgency, have virtually no known oil reserves in their territories yet still oppose the current draft legislation. Kurds, who control large reserves in northern Iraq, oppose the measure because it could loosen their control over a key asset.
American commander Gen. David Petraeus must report to Congress on progress in Iraq by Sept. 15, and the absence of legislative progress will make it difficult to issue a positive assessment.
Al-Maliki has called for parliament to cancel its monthlong vacation or at least limit it to two weeks - a plea that has not resonated among lawmakers.
The infusion of about 30,000 more American forces, completed last month, was US President George W. Bush's attempt to calm the capital and provide "breathing space" to pass the legislation.
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