Baghdad Conference / First Feelers Between the Big Satan and the Axis of Evil

When the U.S. lobbies for sanctions against Iran, it is hard to expect cooperation from Iraq.

One could not help but be impressed by the amazing abilities of evasion evinced by the U.S. ambassador to Iraq, Dr. Zalmay Khalilzad, in response to repeated questions about the talks with the Iranians. For several minutes he clung steadfastly to two impenetrable terms - "productivity and practicality" - as if the subject of this special conference was not the future of Iraq but rather the meeting between "the big Satan and the axis of evil," as an Al Jazeera correspondent put it.

Still, there is hope in the words of Khalilzad, who described the talks as a "first step" that will be judged by its results. In contrast to recent U.S. rhetoric attacking Iran and Syria directly, no charges were raised concering interference of those countries in Iraq. It appears that Washington is preparing for the next stage of the conference, in April, which the foreign ministers of the U.S., Syria and I ran will attend.

It is unlikely that the conference will produce anything concrete where Iraq is concerned. The decision to hold a working meeting on security, border- control and terror organizations will not at this stage impress the rebels or the terror groups, who demonstrated their abilities yesterday with a mass attack and the firing of mortars at the Iraqi foreign minister.

Nor could real change be expected, after one day of talks, in the Kurds' position on Kirkuk or in the parties' view on the allocation of the state's petroleum profits - two of the contentious non-military matters.

The main goal of the Bagdhad summit was to create a common denominator among Iraq's neighbors in order to blunt interference by each of the states on the basis of its own narrow interests. The direct support by Turkey of the Turkmen, while it wages diplomatic war against the Kurds, or the support by Saudi Arabia and Iran for Sunni and Shi'ite political forces, respectively, makes it difficult for a genuine political coalition to coalesce in Iraq that could stop the sectarian violence and focus its efforts against the terror organizations.

Contributing to the deep distrust in the region is the Iraqi government's fear that the U.S. plans to use Iraq as a launchpad for an assault on Iran, and fears that Iraq's Shi'ite government will lead to a regionwide Shi'ite awakening.

This is the true significance of the working committees, assuming they can function in the conditions existing in Iraq. The short term between now and the next stage is a test period, during which each party must demonstrate goodwill and a willingness to cooperate. It is difficult to see, however, how cooperation over Iraq is possible among Iran, Syria and the U.S., when at the same time Washington is lobbying for sanctions against both these countries and negotiating over the creation of an international court to try those responsible for murdering former Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri. It would appear that anyone pushing for the withdrawal of the international forces from Iraq will eventually be obligated to adopt a new, comprehensive strategy that will take into consideration the interests of Iran and Syria, in addition to those of Iraq.