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Iraq offers support for Iran

Backs program on nuclear power

BAGHDAD -- Iraq assured Iran yesterday that it supports Iran's right to develop nuclear energy and will not allow Iraqi territory to be used to threaten Iran, adopting a position at odds with America's view that Iran should abandon its nuclear program.

Speaking during a visit by the Iranian foreign minister to Iraq to congratulate the new Iraqi government formed a week ago, Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari said Iraq's new government ``is a friendly government to Iran."

``Iraq definitely will not be a place to threaten Iran from," Zebari said at a news conference in Baghdad, with the Iranian foreign minister, Manouchehr Mottaki, standing at his side.

In another development, The New York Times reported today that the Bush administration is beginning to debate whether to open direct talks with Iran in an effort to break the standoff. The United States has said publicly that it would not consider face-to-face negotiations until Iran bowed to international demands to halt its uranium enrichment program,.

Mottaki was the second foreign dignitary to call on Iraq's week-old government after Britain's Prime Minister Tony Blair, who visited Monday. Mottaki's trip came as a reminder that although the Shi'ite-dominated Iraqi government remains beholden to the US-led coalition for its existence, it also enjoys warm relations with its neighbor, Shi'ite Iran, and does not wish to become embroiled in the rising tensions between the US and Iran.

Mottaki's visit took him to the epicenter of American power in Iraq, the heavily fortified Green Zone, which is guarded by the US military. Most Iraqi ministries are based there, along with the US embassy, which is housed in Saddam Hussein's former Republican Palace.

Speaking less than a mile from the embassy at the Convention Center, where Iraq's new government was sworn in last week in the presence of US officials, Mottaki warned that Iran would retaliate against any Arab country that facilitated a US attack against Iran.

``In the event that America did do this, from any place, there would be a strong hit from Iran at that place exactly," he said, a further warning to the United States not to use the 133,000 troops currently based in Iraq to wage war on Iran.

He said he thought it doubtful the United States would attack Iran because America ``was the one that was defeated" the last time it went to war. But, he added, ``because sometimes wise people are not the ones in charge of taking decisions in America . . . we are prepared for any eventuality."

The comments underscored Iran's confidence in its relationship with the new Iraqi government, which groups representatives from all the major factions in Iraq but which is dominated by a coalition of Shi'ite religious parties who have close ties to Iran.

Iraq and Iran fought a bitter war in the 1980s, but relations have warmed significantly over the past year, since the United Iraqi Alliance took control of Iraq's government. The Alliance groups a number of religious parties whose leaders sought exile in Iran because of their opposition to Saddam Hussein's regime.

President Bush has refused to rule out the use of military force against Iran should negotiations fail to quell concerns that Iran's nuclear enrichment program is being used to develop a nuclear bomb.

Mottaki also confirmed that Iran had suspended its agreement to engage in bilateral talks with the United States over the future of Iraq.

``Unfortunately, the American side tried to use this decision as propaganda and they raised some other issues, they tried to create a negative atmosphere," he said.

State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said the United States still hopes the talks will go ahead.

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