Iraq's prime minister appealed Saturday for international help to sever networks aiding extremists and warned envoys from neighbors and world powers that Iraq's growing sectarian bloodshed could spill across the Middle East.
The U.S. ambassador to Iraq, Zalmay Khalilzad, also urged nations bordering Iraq — which include Syria and Iran — to expand assistance to the government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, saying "the future of Iraq and the Middle East is the defining issue of our time."
"Iraq has become a front-line battlefield," al-Maliki told delegates at a groundbreaking conference that brought together Islamic nations including Iran and Western representatives led by the United States.
"(Iraq) needs support in this battle that not only threatens Iraq but will spill over to all countries in the region," he added — shortly before mortar shells landed near the conference site and a car bomb exploded in a Shiite stronghold across the city.
Al-Maliki urged for help in stopping financial support, weapon pipelines and "religious cover" for the relentless attacks of car bombings, killings and other attacks that have pit Iraq's Sunnis against majority Shiites.
The one-day gathering also was seen as a prime opportunity for overtures between Iran and the United States, whose chief delegate left open the possibility of one-on-one exchanges about Iraq.
Iraq's government spokesman, Ali al-Dabbaghi, said Iranian and U.S. envoys shook hands during a closed-door discussion session, but apparently did not attempt "direct talks."
The meeting brought together Iraq's six neighbors, the five permanent U.N. Security Council members and several Arab representatives. Its primary goal is to pave the way for a high-level meeting, which was set for next month in Istanbul, Turkey.
Iraq, however, objected to any follow-up sessions outside Baghdad, said an adviser to al-Maliki, who spoke on condition of anonymity because he was not authorized to make public statements.
The meeting also gives a forum to air a wide range of views and concerns including U.S. accusations of weapons smuggling from Iran and Syria, and Arab demands for greater political power for Iraq's Sunnis.
Security was extremely tight as envoys gathered in Iraq's Foreign Ministry, which is outside the heavily protected Green Zone. Shortly after the meeting began, at least two mortar shells hit near the Foreign Ministry. There were no casualties.
Al-Maliki said "the terrorism that kills innocents" in Iraq comes from the same root as terrorists attacks around the world since Sept. 11, 2001, in a reference to groups inspired by al Qaeda.
He also delivered an apparent warning to Syria and Iran to stay away from using Iraq as a proxy battleground for fights against the United States.
"Iraq does not accept that its territories and cities become a field where regional and international disputes are settled," he said.
Khalilzad did not specifically mention Iran in statements to delegates, but he offered indirect messages that the United States acknowledges the country's growing influence in the region.
"The U.S. seeks an Iraq that is at peace with its neighbors; and neighbors that are at peace with Iraq," he said, according to a text distributed by the U.S. Embassy.
But he also reasserted U.S. claims that Syria allows foreign jihadists and Sunni insurgents to cross its border into Iraq, and that weapon shipments from Iran reach Shiite militias. Both nations deny the allegations.
"I urge all neighbors to categorically reject the principle that selective violence against certain categories of Iraqis or against coalition and Iraqi security forces is acceptable," he said.
Iran has denounced the U.S. military presence even though it toppled the country's old foe Saddam Hussein. The complaints grew more pointed in December after American forces detained two Iranian security agents at the compound of a major Shiite political bloc in Baghdad
Six other Iranians were arrested Jan. 11 at an Iranian liaison office in northern Iraq. The U.S. military said they were members of Iran's elite Revolutionary Guard — a charge Iran rejects.
Khalilzad appeared to address Iran's complaints by saying U.S.-led troops do not "have anyone in detention who is a diplomat."
The showdown over Iran's nuclear program also lurks behind any attempt to ease the nearly 28-year diplomatic freeze with Washington.
For Iran, opening more direct contacts with Washington could help promote their shared interests in Iraq, including trying to stamp out Sunni-led insurgents. U.S. officials, meanwhile, need the support of Iranian-allied political groups in Iraq to keep a lid on Shiite militias.
There have been other chances in the past for one-on-one dialogue between the United States and Iran, but rarely with such promise.
In September, the United States joined Iran and Syria in talks on Iraq — although Washington ruled out direct talks with Iran in advance.
Other tensions issues were part of the meeting.
The Arab League said this week that it would urge changes in Iraq's constitution to give more political power to Sunnis, who are outnumbered nearly 3-to-1 by Shiites. Many Shiites in Iraq saw the statement as a challenge to the legitimacy of al-Maliki's government.
Other potential friction at the meeting could come from Turkey, which opposes plans to hold a referendum sometime this year on whether the northern oil hub of Kirkuk will remain in Arab-dominated territory or shift to the semiautonomous Kurdish zone.
Turkish officials fear that oil riches for the Kurds could stir separatist sentiments and spill over into Kurdish areas in Turkey.
"All the delegates are united by one thing: the fear of a prolonged civil war in Iraq. It would hurt them each in different ways," said Abdel-Moneim Said, director of Al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic Studies in Cairo. "Fear is the one thing bringing them all together."