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International Journalists Call Baghdad Security Conference A Good Start

Representatives from Iraq’s neighboring countries and from the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council met in Baghdad last weekend to seek consensus on ending Iraq’s sectarian violence. After months of trading accusations, U.S. and Iranian officials sat in the same room to discuss ways to prevent a wider conflict. President Bush called the recent Iraq regional conference in Baghdad “positive,” but indicated he is waiting to see if the participants, such as Iran and Syria, turn their pledges to help halt the violence in Iraq into action.

Nadia Bilbassy, senior Washington correspondent for al-Arabiya television, says people in the Arab world welcome the participation of all Iraq’s neighbors, including Iran and Syria. Speaking with host Judith Latham of VOA News Now’s International Press Club, Ms. Bilbassy notes that people in the region were not expecting a breakthrough in terms of producing “tangible results.” However, they think the Baghdad Security Conference was a “good start,” although they are careful about assuming that it represents a radical change in U.S. foreign policy. According to Nadia Bilbassy, some people think it means that Washington is “leaning towards becoming more pragmatic rather that ideological” in dealing with states in the region.

It was only two weeks ago that the United States announced it would accept Iraq’s invitation to participate in a regional security conference that included Iran and Syria, countries that Washington regards as sponsoring terrorism by their support for Hezbollah and Hamas. British journalist and U.N. reporter Ian Williams agrees with Ms. Bilbassy that the U.S. administration’s attitude has softened. He says that Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice represents a “more pragmatic and less ideological wing” of U.S. foreign policy. Ian Williams says that no neighboring state wants “chaos” in Iraq and that Iran wants a peaceful solution so U.S. troops will have “no excuse” to stay on.

Former Iranian journalist Ali-Reza Nourizadeh, who is now director of the Center for Arab-Iranian Studies in London, says he views the handshake between the U.S. Ambassador to Iraq and Iran’s Deputy Foreign Minister as a “good sign.” And, Iran hopes the Baghdad conference will pave the way for more serious dialogue in the future.

Although Iran is clearly a more important player regarding Iraqi security than Syria is, Nadia Bilbassy says, Syria’s porous border with Iraq also poses a security problem. Ms. Bilbassy says Syria has officially indicated that it is “always willing” to speak to the United States and is hopeful that the recent conference will “develop into more contact.”

Despite their skepticism about how much progress on the Iraqi security front can be achieved through diplomatic exchange, the journalists say that all sides have something to gain in the process. For example, Tehran hopes to gain the release of five Iranian generals arrested by the Americans last month in the Kurdish area of northern Iraq. Damascus wants greater acceptance in the community of nations. Washington, along with the other permanent members of the U.N. Security Council, has serious concerns about Iran’s nuclear program. And finally, no one wants the sectarian violence in Iraq to spread.

U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is expected to attend a follow-up ministerial-level meeting next month, possibly in Turkey. However, Iran favors a meeting in Baghdad.

To listen to all of the comments, click on the audio link above.