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Powell to Meet Iranian Officials

Secretary of State Colin Powell says he expects to meet Iranian officials later this month at the Egyptian-hosted international conference aimed at building support for elections in Iraq. At a news conference in Mexico City, Mr. Powell also defended the decision to retake the Iraqi city of Fallujah from insurgents.

Though the United States and Iran have not had diplomatic relations for a quarter-century, there have been occasional political contacts between them in recent years on issues of mutual concern including Afghanistan.

At a press appearance capping the annual meeting of the U.S.-Mexican Bi-National Commission here, Mr. Powell said he expects Iranian officials to attend the November 22nd conference on Iraq in the Egyptian resort town of Sharm el-Sheikh. The conference will also be attended by other neighboring states of Iraq, the G-8 industrial powers and China.

"Since we'll all be at the same conference, I expect that I would be talking to everybody at that conference to include the Iranians, Syrians and others, just as I have done in the past when we had Six-Plus-Two meetings when we were dealing with the problems in Afghanistan," he said. "And so we will have an opportunity to talk. But we haven't arranged any particular meetings. Nothing's been set up, therefore there is no agenda to discuss yet."

The United States and Iran have been engaged in a bitter dispute over that country's nuclear program, which U.S. officials say has a covert weapons component. But only last week, the U.S. Librarian of Congress, James Billington, held talks with his counterparts in Tehran in what is believed to have been the first visit by a U.S. official of that rank in 18 years.

At the news conference, Mr. Powell also defended the drive by U.S. and Iraqi government forces to retake the insurgent stronghold of Fallujah, while acknowledging the operation would cause casualties among civilians.

"Iraqi forces, alongside coalition forces, have assaulted Fallujah for the purpose of putting down this insurrection, to putting down this insurgency and reasserting control," he noted. "Our troops will conduct this mission in a way that minimizes loss of civilian life, damage to civilian property. But it is a military action, and lives will be lost, on our side, on the side of the insurgents, and regrettably innocent people who would just as soon not have this insurgency in their city."

Mr. Powell said the insurgents had been denying Fallujah residents and other Iraqis the opportunity to participate in the political process leading to elections in January, and said he hopes Iraqi and world opinion will understand the necessity of the operation in Fallujah.

He said in addition to concerns about civilian losses in Fallujah, there should be equal concerns expressed about lives lost in attacks by the insurgents, who he said murder dozens of people each day in an effort to deny Iraqis democracy and a better life.