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Iran: Tehran Delegation In Iraq On 'Fact-Finding' Mission

The extent of Iran's diplomatic involvement in Iraq remains unclear. An Iranian fact-finding delegation reportedly visited the holy city of Al-Najaf today, but apparently did not meet with radical Shi'a cleric Muqtada al-Sadr. The United States, for its part, says -- publicly at least -- that Iran has a role to play but should not mediate directly between Washington and Shi'a insurgents.

Prague, 16 April 2004 (RFE/RL) - The extent of Iran's diplomatic involvement in resolving a standoff between U.S. forces in Iraq and a radical Shi'a cleric today remains unclear.

Iran today clearly distanced itself from reports it is trying to play a mediation role in the crisis. Iranian Foreign Minister Kamal Kharrazi was quoted today as saying the delegation "would not mediate between the Iraqi people and their occupiers."

A five-member Iranian delegation, headed by diplomat Hussein Sadeqi, today reportedly visited the Shi'a holy city of Al-Najaf, where Shi'a cleric Muqtada al-Sadr is said to be in hiding. The delegation apparently did not meet with al-Sadr.

Al-Sadr earlier this month led a violent insurgency against the U.S.-led occupation. The United States has now positioned 2,500 troops around the city in a show of force to convince al-Sadr to give himself up.

The Iranian delegation is traveling in Iraq reportedly at the invitation of Great Britain, and presumably with the consent of the United States.

Yesterday, U.S. State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said he believed the Iranians could play a positive role. But, he said, he did not think it would be appropriate for Iran to attempt to mediate between the coalition and al-Sadr.

"Our view -- and this has been communicated to the Iranians as well -- is that it's not appropriate for them to try to mediate, in some way. It is appropriate for them to try to work with the authorities in Baghdad, to try to work with the Iraqis, who are in leadership roles, as we have and others have, to try to help stabilize this situation and bring whatever influence to bear that they can. It would help stabilize the situation peacefully and allow the extension of governmental authority," Boucher said.

Boucher said an American member of the Coalition Provisional Authority met yesterday with the delegation while it was in Baghdad. "In fact, what we know about this [Iranian] delegation is that there was a delegation sent by the Iranians to Baghdad that -- and they went there, they wanted to meet with the British with the Coalition Authority.... Specifically, they asked for a meeting with the British people who were there. And they did have that meeting and, in fact, an American sat in on that meeting -- one of our people at the Coalition Authority. We used the occasion to pass the message that I described to you before, that we always do, that it's important for Iranian policy to be constructive and not destructive, and to pass the message that we didn't think it was appropriate for them to try to mediate in the situation in [Al-]Najaf," Boucher said.

The United States remains suspicious of Iran's involvement in Iraq, particularly with the country's majority Shi'a community. The chairman of the U.S. Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Richard Myers, yesterday warned that foreign fighters are infiltrating Iraq from Syria and Iran.

For its part, Iran says it cannot remain indifferent to the crisis involving fellow Shi'a Muslims in neighboring Iraq.

Yesterday, Iranian President Hojatoleslam Mohammad Khatami said Iran has been trying to find a solution to the crisis in Iraq from the very beginning, using all means at its disposal.

Davoud Hermidas Bavand, a professor of international law in Tehran, said in his opinion it is highly unlikely Iranian diplomats would meet with al-Sadr. "Iran's direct influence on al-Sadr would prove the [United States'] allegations against Iran. That would not be in al-Sadr's or in Iran's best interest. The delegation sent from Iran would first of all talk with Shi'a leaders such as [Iraqi Shi'a leader] Ayatollah [al-]Sistani."

Bavand said, however, because the visit has the tacit approval of the United States, it could lead to an improvement in relations between the two. "It's an opening. Earlier, the Americans had wanted to use the humanitarian atmosphere of the [Bam] earthquake for a kind of dialogue to resolve the problems," Bavand said.

Meanwhile, Iranian officials are continuing to investigate yesterday's assassination of the first secretary of the Iranian embassy in Baghdad. It's unclear whether the killing of diplomat Khalil Naimi had anything to do with Iran's current negotiating efforts.

No individual or group has claimed responsibility.