Sunday, March 12, 2006

U.S. Denies Asking for Iranian Help in Iraq

The U.S. ambassador in Baghdad denied on Sunday seeking Iran's help to calm violence in Iraq and said there were still concerns about the Islamic Republic's links with militias in Iraq. Britain's Sunday Times newspaper said journalists in Tehran had been shown a letter by a senior Iranian intelligence agent that was purportedly from U.S. envoy Zalmay Khalilzad, and which invited Iran to send representatives to talks in Iraq. READ MORE

The newspaper said the letter was written in Farsi, which the Afghan-born ambassador speaks.

Khalilzad told CNN there had been no meetings between Iranian and U.S. officials.

"We have concerns about their relations with militias and extremists," said Khalilzad.

Earlier, the U.S. embassy denied such a letter existed.

"Ambassador Khalilzad has the authority to meet with Iranian officials to discuss issues of mutual concern," the embassy said in a statement. "But he has not sent a letter in any language to the Iranians."

Shi'ite Muslim Iran has repeatedly been accused of meddling in post-war Iraq, with Western and Iraqi officials charging Iran with allowing weapons and insurgents to cross its borders.

The Sunday Times said Tehran was open to a meeting, citing a source close to the Iranian government, but it would have to be in a neutral country. The paper said Iran hoped this might eventually enable a dialogue about its nuclear programme.

A senior Iranian official denied Tehran was interested in talks before U.S. troops pulled out of Iraq.

Speaking on condition of anonymity, the government official denied the existence of a letter from Khalilzad but said the United States had approached Iran through "channels" he did not wish to describe.

The United States and Iran have been arch foes, without diplomatic relations, since Iran's 1979 Islamic revolution.

Tensions are high over Iran's insistence on developing nuclear power reactors, a move staunchly opposed by the United States and other Western powers who accuse Tehran of secretly trying to build atomic weapons.

Some analysts and Iraqi politicians say Iran, close to many of the leaders of Iraq's new, ruling Shi'ite Islamist parties, has an interest in promoting some instability in Iraq to divert U.S. pressure on itself.

U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said recently that Iran was meddling in Iraq by sending Revolutionary Guards forces into the country.

(Additional reporting by Parinoosh Arami in Tehran)