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Sun 10 Feb 2008 09:48 AM

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Iran, US back to the table over Iraq

New round of talks slated between Tehran and Washington over security in Baghdad, official says.

Iran and the US are to launch a new round of talks on the future of war-ravaged Iraq next week in Baghdad, an Iranian official told student news agency ISNA on Saturday.

"These discussions will take place by the end of next week," said the official who requested anonymity.

"The structure of these discussions has been finalised but the level of participation has not yet been agreed," he said.

Iran wants the meeting to be held between ambassadors but the US prefers it to be a meeting of experts, the official added.

On Friday, Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki said new talks between the two countries would be held after February 11, the anniversary of Iran's 1979 Islamic revolution.

There was no immediate confirmation from Baghdad or Washington.

Tehran had requested a meeting with Washington to discuss Iraq's security but the talks, scheduled for December 18, were postponed, without a new date being set.

The next meeting aims to explore ways of reducing violence in Iraq, and is expected to bring together diplomats, security experts and the military.

US Ambassador to Iraq Ryan Crocker and his Iranian counterpart Hassan Kazemi Qomi previously met in Baghdad last May and July.

Washington, which broke off diplomatic relations with Tehran after the 1979 revolution, accuses Iran of sending weapons to Iraq and funding Iraqi Shi'ite extremist groups.

Iran denies any involvement in violence in Iraq and believes that the withdrawal of American troops is the first step to a restoration of security in the country.

Relations between the two countries hit a low in January after a standoff in the Strait of Hormuz between US warships and Iranian gunboats.

The countries are also at loggerheads over Iran's nuclear programme, which Tehran insists is only for energy production but Washington fears could be a cover for the development of atomic weapons - a claim Tehran denies.

Despite a US intelligence report in December that said Iran halted its nuclear weapons programme in 2003, Washington is leading a push for further sanctions to halt Tehran's uranium enrichment programme.

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