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US open to talks with Iran on stabilising Iraq

Written by: Staff

WASHINGTON, Mar 16 (Reuters) The White House said today that the United States is open to holding talks with Iran about stabilising Iraq after the Islamic republic responded to prior offers from Washington for a dialogue.

White House spokesman Scott McClellan said US Ambassador to Iraq Zalmay Khalilzad was authorized to speak to the Iranians about issues specific to Iraq.

Iran had initially rejected a US offer for talks about its neighbor Iraq where recent sectarian violence has raised fears of civil war nearly three years after the US invasion toppled Saddam Hussein. Tehran changed its position after President George W. Bush made his most explicit accusation this week that Iranians were contributing to instability in Iraq.

McClellan said this channel of communications was narrow, with only Iraq to be discussed, and that the nuclear issue was one for the UN Security Council.

''Our ambassador is authorized to talk with leaders in Iran, but it's to reiterate to them and express our concerns that we have about their involvement inside Iraq,'' McClellan said, rejecting any characterization of it as opening a dialogue with Tehran.

White House national security adviser Stephen Hadley did not rule out direct talks with Tehran about its nuclear ambitions.

Asked if the United States were prepared to talk to Iran directly if they asked on issues other than Iraq, Hadley reiterated the US determination that Iran's nuclear issue be resolved through international negotiations.

''We are going to look at any kind of conversation like that in the context of our overall strategy of trying to keep the international community together and get Iran to change its policy on the nuclear issue, on support for terror and on treatment of its own people,'' he said.

''And we will make those kind of tactical decisions in the context of whether it will advance our overall strategy,'' he said.

Hadley said international efforts to persuade Iran to climb down from its hard-line stance on the nuclear issue and other strains may be bearing fruit.

''We are I think beginning to get indications that the Iranians are finally beginning to listen. And there is beginning to be a debate within the leadership, and I would hope a debate between the leadership and their people about whether the course they are on is the right course for the good of their country,'' he said.

''That has only come about because they have heard a coordinated message from the international community.'' In November, Bush authorized his ambassador in Iraq to have talks with Iran in what would be unusual contact between two long-standing foes who are locked in a standoff over Tehran's nuclear programs.

A State Department official, who asked to remain anonymous because he was not authorized to discuss the dialogue, said, ''Obviously we're open to meeting with Iranian officials to discuss Iraq-related issues. The arrangements for such a meeting will have to be worked out with our diplomatic mission in Iraq.'' REUTERS SK RAI0218

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