(photo credit: AP)
Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki said Thursday he is willing to go to Iran to convince its leaders to attend an upcoming key regional summit aimed at stabilizing Iraq.
Maliki told The Associated Press during a flight home from the Gulf state of Oman that Iran's presence at next week's conference, set for an Egyptian resort, is important and "we will work on finding meetings between Iran and America" during the session.
On Wednesday, Iraq's Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari visited Teheran to try to convince the Iranians to attend.
He met his Iranian counterpart Manouchehr Mottaki, who said later that Iran has still not decided whether to attend the May 3-4 meeting at Sharm e-Sheikh.
Mottaki declined to say what Iran's conditions are for attending. Iran has previously said it could boycott the gathering unless five Iranians seized by US forces in a raid in the northern Iraqi city of Irbil on January 11, are not freed.
US authorities have said the five detained included the operations chief and other members of Iran's elite Quds Force, which is accused of arming and training Iraqi militants, a claim that Iran denied.
"We want good relations with neighboring and Arab countries. There will be a direct meeting with the Americans if the Iranians attend the conference," Maliki said. "Its absence will be a drawback and we have sent minister Zebari to convince them and if needed I will travel there to convince them to attend the conference."
If Iran stays away, it would be a setback to the conference, which Iraq and the United States hope can rally regional support for the beleaguered Baghdad government. Arab nations are attending the gathering but are resisting giving significant help unless the government improves ties with Iraq's Sunni Arabs.
Zebari said Wednesday that "it is not sound" to link the fate of the five detained Iranians to Iran's attendance." He suggested the gathering would be a chance for Iran and the United States to ease their differences.
"Tension between Iran and the United States and other parties in the West has a negative impact on the situation in Iraq," the minister said. "Iran's attendance is very vital because of its role and influence on the developments in the region. ... It is an opportunity for all to speak frankly and defuse tension."
Zebari said he gave Iran "clarifications on unclear issues" related to the conference.
Mottaki said Iran will study the clarifications "and we will announce our opinion on the conference soon."
Iran is close to the Shi'ite and Kurdish parties, which dominate the Iraqi government. But tensions have been rising between Iran and the Iraqi government's other ally, the United States, which accuses Teheran of backing Shi'ite militias blamed in Iraq's sectarian bloodshed.
The Sharm e-Sheikh meetings will be attended by Iraq's other neighbors, as well as Bahrain and Egypt, and delegates from the five permanent members of the UN Security Council as well as the G-8 industrial nations including Japan, Canada and Germany.
The US administration, although it is not inviting a broad conversation, has repeatedly said it will not rule out sideline talks with either Iran or Syria at the Sharm e-Sheikh conference.