More talk, less swagger could help Bush

Possible negotiations between the United States and Iran and the convening of the first session of a new Iraqi parliament could give the Bush administration a long-needed lift.

The recent inaugural session of Iraq’s parliament is a positive step toward the new Iraq that President Bush envisions as he pursues a war that’s unpopular with many Americans. Progress toward forging a unity government representing all of Iraq’s sects would be a boost for a country that has been veering close to civil war.

U.S. intelligence strongly suspects Iran has been arming Iraqi Shiite militia and some insurgent groups. If talks with Iran come off, the administration would try persuading Tehran to curb its activities with the argument that instability in Iraq could envelop the area, including Iran.

For Bush, whose dive in the polls reflects Americans’ eroding confidence in his Iraq strategy, progress on either front would be welcome relief _ especially with midterm elections for control of Congress just eight months away.

There are troublesome developments as well. The eruption of violence among Kurds in northern Iraq poses new security problems for already strained Iraqi forces, particularly if Islamic radicals were behind the outbreak in Halabja.

Indications are the stone-throwing Kurds were registering displeasure with their own leaders and not threatening conflict with other Iraqi groups.

The disorder distracts from an aggressive U.S.-Iraqi military campaign against insurgents in a Sunni Arab-dominated area outside Samarra, where the bombing of a Shiite shrine three weeks ago ignited the most recent siege of violence.

Referring to the volatile situation in the country, U.N. envoy Ashraf Qazi said Friday that it has deteriorated since he took up the post 19 months ago.

Qazi, speaking at the U.S. Institute of Peace in Washington, said Iraq was not on the brink of civil war. But he described the situation as serious and said it “could lead to a breakdown of order” if left unchecked.

Bush administration officials are convinced Iran is playing a mischievous role in Iraq, especially in arming militias with explosives and other weapons.

They said Friday that Tehran’s willingness to have face-to-face discussions with U.S. officials about Iraq could be an effort to divert attention from an approaching confrontation at the United Nations over Iran’s nuclear program.

“The concern, therefore, is that it is simply a device by the Iranians to try and divert pressure that they’re feeling in New York,” White House national security adviser Steven Hadley said.

“Obviously, this is something that we and those who are working with us on these issues will not let happen,” he added.

Despite the standoff over Iran’s nuclear program, the administration has been seeking talks with Tehran narrowly limited to its intervention in Iraq. Despite its skepticism, some in the administration want to try setting up the talks, at the very least to avoid criticism in case Iran turns out to be serious about seeking a solution in Iraq.

Ruled out by U.S. officials is discussion of any attempt by Iran to gain a political foothold in Iraq, and the nuclear dispute, which could soon come before the U.N. Security Council.

The talks, which would be held in Baghdad, are not the first between the United States and Iran even though the two foes do not have diplomatic relations. They have met in the past for cooperative efforts in stabilizing Afghanistan and countering narcotics, for instance.

The antipathy is immense, however. American officials have denounced Iran repeatedly as the world’s No. 1 supporter of terrorism.


Barry Schweid has covered diplomacy for The Associated Press since 1973.

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