Iran on Wednesday condemned the US attack on the city of Falluja while also offering to help the US extricate itself from the quagmire of Iraq.
Iran's statements and actions are being closely watched by the Bush administration as Colin Powell, outgoing secretary of state, prepares to meet his Iranian counterpart, Kamal Kharrazi, in Egypt at a conference next week on Iraq's future.
Officials in Washington said there was considerable scepticism over Iran's intentions in Iraq, but still a willingness to have the highest- level discussion with Iran for three years.
Well, they'll get a message from everybody that this is the time to help Iraq, Mr Powell said of the meeting to be held at the resort of Sharm El Sheikh, bringing together Iraq, its neighbours and the main world powers.
And anything that serves to either destabilise the country or destabilise the government, or to allow actions to take place from their countries that would put the coalition forces at risk, would not be helpful or useful, Mr Powell said in Brazil late on Wednesday.
Ayatollah Ali Khamenei, Iran's supreme leader, described the attack on Falluja and the deaths of civilians in the rebel stronghold as a big injustice by warmongering world tyrannies against some oppressed Muslims.
How can Islamic and Arab governments be indifferent viewers? he asked. He urged them to at least raise their voices of protest but did not advocate any retaliatory measures against US forces.
At the same time, Iranian media carried remarks by President Mohammad Khatami, who said Iran was willing to help the US escape from the quagmire of Iraq.
We are ready to help save them [the Americans] so that the Iraqi nation can be saved, he told Iranian reporters on Wednesday.
Analysts in Washington did not see the two statements as necessarily contradictory. But any indication that Iran's Shia regime was offering support to the Sunni insurgents would be extremely damaging to what are regarded as frail prospects of a limited dialogue between Washington and Tehran.
Mr Khatami said Iran's willingness in the context of next Monday's conference to co-operate over Iraq did not translate into a desire to address bilateral issues with the US under current circumstances.
In negotiating Tehran's suspension of critical elements of its nuclear programme last week, the EU3 France, Germany and the UK also won a commitment from Iran to help the political process in Iraq aimed at establishing a constitutionally elected government.
Mr Powell said Iran should not interfere with the legislative elections, scheduled for January 2005, or seek to influence them.
The US has given its cautious endorsement of the nuclear agreement. But Mr Powell also said he had seen information that Iran had been actively working on developing delivery systems for a nuclear weapon. He did not elaborate.
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