BAGHDAD, Iraq – U.S. Ambassador Zalmay Khalilzad said Friday that discussions were under way about when he would meet with Iranian officials about Iraq and that the talks should be held in Baghdad.
In an interview with The Associated Press, the Afghan-born Khalilzad also said the international community, particularly Arab states in the Persian Gulf, should help fund the rebuilding of the war-shattered country because they have "a lot at stake."
Khalilzad, who has played a major role in forcing Iraqi politicians to begin serious negotiations on forming a new government, suggested that Shiite Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari was not the unifying figure Iraq needed as the next head of government.
On Wednesday, Shiite political heavyweight Abdul-Aziz al-Hakim, who spent years in self-exile in Iran during Saddam Hussein's regime, called for Tehran to open talks with the United States about Iraq.
A day later, Iran said it was willing to hold such talks, but both sides said the discussions would be limited to efforts to stabilize Iraq.
The Bush administration said it would discuss the insurgency with the Islamic republic, but not Tehran's suspect nuclear program.
The secretary of Iran's Supreme National Security Council, Ali Larijani, who is also Iran's top nuclear negotiator, said Khalilzad repeatedly had invited Iran for talks on Iraq.
Khalilzad said he had never written to or spoken with Iranian officials about the talks but agreed they should be limited to Iranian policy regarding Iraq.
The U.S. envoy said a decision on when the talks would occur was "still being discussed. But I think we would assume since these discussions are with regard to our concern with Iranian policies in Iraq that it should be in Baghdad. That would be our approach."
In addition to the Washington's claims that Iran is trying to build a nuclear weapon, the United States has accused Iran of meddling in Iraq as it struggles to overcome a brutal insurgency and an Al Qaeda terror campaign. President Bush has said some components in roadside bombs contained Iranian components.
With much of the $20 billion the Congress approved for Iraqi reconstruction already spent or earmarked and with only $1.6 billion in the next supplemental appropriation, Khalilzad said the United States was looking to the international community for help, especially from Iraq's fellow Arab countries in the Persian Gulf.
"The Gulf states have a lot at stake here. They're doing very well financially thanks to the high price of oil. We're looking to them to help the national unity government," he said.
Formation of such a government is far from a reality even though Iraq's new parliament met in its first session Thursday. The lawmakers gathered for 40 minutes to take the oath of office then adjourned because they had not agreed on a speaker to preside over their sessions, let alone a new president, prime minister or Cabinet.
Khalilzad has pushed political leaders into a series of meetings in the past several days to hammer out a compromise on the deadlock over the nomination of al-Jaafari to serve a second term.
"There is a lot of disagreement about the prime minister. There are forces inside the United Iraqi Alliance (which nominated al-Jaafari by one vote) that want him to be the next prime minister, and there are forces both inside and outside the alliance that do not," Khalilzad said.
"The important thing from our point of view is the prime minister should be one who can unify Iraq, the various ethnic and sectarian groups."