BAGHDAD - Iran agreed yesterday to join the United States and other countries at a conference on Iraq this week, raising hopes that the government in Tehran would help stabilize its violent neighbor and stem the flow of guns and bombs over the border.
In an apparent effort to drive home that point, Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki told an Iranian envoy that the persistent violence in Iraq - some of it carried out by the Shiite militias Iran is accused of arming - could spill over into neighboring countries, including those that are "supposed to support the Iraqi government."
Iraq's other neighbors, as well as Egypt, Bahrain, and representatives of the five permanent U.N. Security Council members, have agreed to attend the meeting Thursday and Friday in the Egyptian Red Sea resort of Sharm el-Sheikh.
The conference will also include Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, raising the possibility of a rare direct encounter between high-level U.S. and Iranian officials.
In Washington, Rice would not rule out a meeting with the Iranians, whose delegation will be led by Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki.
"But what do we need to do? It's quite obvious. Stop the flow of arms to foreign fighters. Stop the flow of foreign fighters across the borders," Rice said on ABC's This Week.
Hours earlier, Maliki's office announced that Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad had telephoned to say a delegation from his country would attend the conference.
Iraqi leaders had been pressing for weeks for the Iranians to attend the meeting, but Iran refused to commit, in part because of fears that it would come under pressure from the United States and others about its nuclear program.
In addition, the Iranians have been lobbying for release of five Iranians held by U.S. forces in Iraq since January. The United States has accused the five of links to an Iranian Revolutionary Guard unit that arms and trains Shiite extremists in Iraq and elsewhere in the Middle East.
The decision to attend "came after consultations between Iraqi officials and the Iranian president," Foreign Ministry spokesman Mohammad Ali Hosseini said in an interview with Iranian state television.
Senior Iranian envoy Ali Larijani flew to Baghdad yesterday for talks with Maliki and other Iraqi officials, making him the highest-ranking Iranian official to visit Iraq since the collapse of Saddam Hussein's regime in 2003.
During their meeting, Larijani told Maliki that all countries that wanted stability in the region "have no choice but to support Iraq's elected government."
Maliki replied that terrorist attacks in Iraq would hurt all countries in the region, "including those that are supposed to support the Iraqi government," according to a statement by the prime minister's office. Although Maliki did not refer to specific groups, it appeared that his remarks were not limited to Sunni insurgents but included Shiite extremists as well.
Apart from security issues, the United States and Iraq hope the conference will produce an agreement to forgive Iraq's huge debts and offer financial assistance in return for an Iraqi pledge to implement political and economic reforms.
But Iraq's Arab neighbors are expected to demand that the Baghdad government, dominated by Shiites and Kurds, do more to reach out to disgruntled Sunni Arabs before they pledge substantial aid.
The Iraqis were anxious for the Iranians to attend to give them leverage against their Sunni-dominated neighbors and to help press their case that Sunni extremists, including al-Qaeda, pose the gravest threat to stability.
U.S. troops in Baghdad clashed yesterday with Shiite gunmen, police said. There was no report on casualties but police said several gunmen were arrested.
American troops also detained 72 suspected insurgents and seized nitric acid and other bomb-making materials yesterday during raids targeting al-Qaeda in Iraq in Anbar province, a Sunni insurgent stronghold west of the capital, and in Salahuddin province, a volatile Sunni area northwest of the capital.
Iraqi police reported that at least 52 people were killed or found dead yesterday, a relatively low figure in recent weeks.
They included five people killed in a car bombing in the southern city of Basra and 10 men whose bullet-riddled bodies were found in various parts of Baqubah, 35 miles northeast of Baghdad.
Britain said one of its soldiers was shot and killed yesterday while on patrol in Basra. The death brings to 146 the number of British troops killed in Iraq since the 2003 invasion - 12 of them this month.
The death toll from a suicide car-bomb attack Saturday in the Shiite holy city of Karbala rose to 68 yesterday as residents dug through the debris of heavily damaged shops.