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Iran shifts attention to brokering peace in Iraq

Details from a secret meeting between top Iranian and Iraqi officials signal Iran's aim to 'stop arming' militias.

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The suspicion matches the continuing hostile rhetoric from both sides. As he left for Israel, President Bush on Monday called Iran the "single biggest threat" to peace in the Middle East. Just days before, Iran's supreme religious leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei lambasted American support for the Jewish state and called the US military presence in the Persian Gulf "the source of insecurity in this very sensitive region."

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US and, increasingly, Iraqi officials accuse Iran – through its elite Qods Force of the Islamic Revolutionary Guard Corps – of setting up networks inside Iraq after the fall of Saddam Hussein to exercise a "malign influence." The US charges Iran with backing militants of all stripes, including Sadr's Mahdi Army militia and breakaway Shiite gunmen that the US calls "special groups." The US also alleges that Iran provides lethal roadside bombs that have taken "hundreds" of US lives.

Two weeks ago, an Iraqi delegation sent to Iran by Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki returned with promises that Iran would support Mr. Maliki's Shiite-led government and lean on Sadr to reach a truce.

Iran "committed to acting more positively, and we are now awaiting evidence of that commitment," says Haidar Abbadi, a member of parliament from Maliki's Dawa Party. The Sadr City cease-fire is a "good sign" that shows the Iranians "putting pressure on the militants there."

"The Iranians have a direct role with the Mahdi Army," says Mr. Abbadi, "and the Iraqi government has decided it won't accept that role at this point."

Prior to that visit, in late March, Soleimani intervened with Sadr to halt the fighting in the southern city of Basra, stopping the violence just one day after a personal face-to-face request from Talabani.

But it is details of a second Talabani-Soleimani meeting just days later, around April 4, between two men who have known each other for more than two decades, that caught Iraqi and US attention.

Doubt on the US side runs deep, though Soleimani listed Iranian aims and even "common goals with the United States" in Iraq that virtually mirror stated US policy points, according to the description of the meeting.

"When we first saw it, we thought it was too good to be true," says the American official who provided details of the talks. "But there are so many layers of gray."