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Iraq, Iran Plan High-Level Meeting

April 19, 1998

BAGHDAD, Iraq (AP) _ In a new signal that Iran and Iraq are headed for a U-turn in relations, they plan a high-level meeting Monday to discuss freeing all remaining prisoners of war and the fate of missing soldiers.

An Iranian diplomat in Baghdad said his government hoped to close out all ``humanitarian issues″ with Iraq, referring to POWs and those missing from the two countries’ 1980-1988 war that left more than a million dead or injured.

The meeting follows the biggest prisoner swap since 1990 _ more than 5,000 Iraqis and over 300 Iranians _ and could lead to freedom for many more prisoners, some jailed for up to 18 years.

The thaw in the neighbors’ stormy relations began with Iraq’s state-run media halting its bitter attacks on Iran after President Mohammed Khatami took office in August. Iraqi President Saddam Hussein vowed to respond to any step by Iran to normalize ties.

Now, even visits by junior Iranian officials are highlighted by Iraq’s official press, and the country’s most influential newspaper _ Babil, owned by Saddam’s eldest son Odai _ has repeatedly called for an alliance between Iraq, Iran and Syria.

Iraqi Foreign Minister Mohammed Saeed al-Sahhaf has visited Iran twice since Khatami took over. His talks in the capital Tehran led to the huge prisoner swap early this month.

Under the auspices of the International Committee of the Red Cross, Iran handed over 5,584 Iraqi POWs in return for three Iranian prisoners and 316 so-called civil law detainees, those that Iraq says were arrested after the conflict.

The Iranian diplomat in Baghdad, speaking to The Associated Press over the weekend on customary condition of anonymity, said the meeting Monday would be held at the border post of Mundhariya, 120 kilometers (75 miles) east of Baghdad.

The ICRC in Baghdad says it is not directly involved in the current talks but praised them as ``very fertile″ toward solving the problem of POWs and those missing in action.

``The ICRC hopes that these talks can lead to an overall solution of the whole issue,″ said Frank Bertelsbeck, an ICRC spokesman in Baghdad.

Bertelsbeck said that accounting for POWs and MIAs is not an easy matter, noting that not all Iraqi POWs freed in the latest batch had been registered previously by the ICRC.

Iran has so far released more than 56,000 Iraqi POWs. More than 10,000 Iraqis are still in captivity in Iran, according to Iraqi officials.

Iraq maintains it is not holding any Iranian POWs. The Iranian diplomat said he believed Iraq still held some Iranians, but he did not say whether they were POWs or civil law detainees.

He said solving the POW and MIA problem will pave the way for the two countries to tackle other ``thorny issues.″

These include the fate of opposition groups each country harbors on its territory for attacks on the other and the question of the payment of war reparations.

The Mujahedeen Khalq organization has at least six major military camps in Iraq and runs anti-Tehran programs on its radio and TV stations. Iran, in turn, provides refuge to the Supreme Council of the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, a group of mainly Iraqi exiles with its own radio and TV broadcasts.

Diplomats say Iraq and Iran should not find it difficult to restrain or disband these groups, since both sides now realize that the opposition forces are not capable of changing the government in either Tehran or Baghdad.

The diplomats said a real thaw in relations will take place when pilgrims from Shiite Muslim-majority Iran stream into Iraq to pay homage at the Shiite shrines in Karbala and Najaf.

The Iranian diplomat said pilgrimage for Iranian Shiites is one of the areas where the two sides are making tangible progress. He gave no date for the start of such pilgrimages, but said travel companies on both sides were working out details for the visits.

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