US, Iranian ministers have no contact at Iraq talks

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UNITED NATIONS, Sep 23 (Reuters) The US and Iranian foreign ministers found themselves in the same room but, in contrast to their brief chat over ice cream when they last met in May, this time there was no contact whatsoever.

The distance between US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki -- who sat at opposite sides of a UN-hosted meeting on Iraq yesterday -- is emblematic of the continuing divide between their nations.

The United States accuses Iran of fueling violence in Iraq and of seeking to develop nuclear weapons under the cover of its civil nuclear program. Iran denies both allegations.

At yesterday's gathering of Iraq's neighbors and major powers, Mottaki launched into a lengthy attack on the United States, according to two participants at the meeting.

Among other things, he called upon US authorities to release several Iranians detained in Iraq who Tehran says are diplomats but who Washington says were helping insurgents.

Mottaki also asked how Iran could be asked to play a wider regional role, such as in this meeting on Iraq, when the United States refused to release the diplomats who could actually do that work, according to one participant in the meeting.

Asked if the United States, which this year began talking to Iran about how to stabilize Iraq, found anything that piqued its interest in Mottaki's remarks, the State Department's Iraq coordinator, David Satterfield, said flatly ''No.'' Instead, Satterfield offered a largely dismissive account of Mottaki's speech, saying it was longer than anyone else's, focused on the United States rather than Iraq and contained only a brief reference to Iraqi national reconciliation.

''You would have to take their commitment in the context of what they are doing on the ground. What they are doing on the ground is continuing to supply arms and training on arms to the most violent, most lethal, most radical elements in Iraq,'' Satterfield said. ''We don't believe this is consistent with a pledge to support reconciliation.'' Under pressure from senior U.S. lawmakers and retired top officials, the United States earlier this year began to engage both Iran and Syria in an effort to quell the violence that rages in Iraq more than four years after the US-led invasion that toppled former Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein.

At a meeting of major powers and Iraq's neighbors at the Red Sea resort of Sharm-el-Sheikh in Egypt in May, the United States made clear it was open to a Rice-Mottaki meeting but the Iranians were cool to the idea.

Their only close encounter at that time was at a lunch where, at the awkward prodding of their Egyptian host, they made small talk over ice cream, avoiding discussions on Iraq or Iran's nuclear program, key areas of contention between the two.

The United States and Iran have not had diplomatic relations since 1980, when the United States cut ties while 52 US citizens were held hostage by Iranian students.

REUTERS JK AS0833

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