Iraq weighs talks with Iran, Syria

Officials say Tehran is behind latest proposal of a summit

November 21, 2006|By Solomon Moore | Solomon Moore,LOS ANGELES TIMES

BAGHDAD, Iraq -- Iraqi leaders said yesterday that they are seriously considering three-way summit talks with Iran and Syria, responding to an overture from Iran's president that raises new questions about the level of U.S. influence over events here.

The talks would focus on how the two neighbor states could help quell rising sectarian bloodshed in Iraq, according to Iraqi officials familiar with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's offer.

The invitation to a summit meeting is a further assertion of Iran's influence and comes as the U.S. government is sharply divided over whether to make an overture of its own to Iran and Syria.

Influential figures in Washington have urged the Bush administration to talk with both countries in hopes of gaining their help in bringing the violence in Iraq under control. But many of Bush's advisers oppose that idea.

Administration policy has been to isolate Iran in hopes of compelling the government to abandon its nuclear program and to refuse to talk with Syria until that nation drops its support for groups the United States considers terrorist.

As the debate continues in Washington, the Iranians have stepped forward. Iraqi President Jalal Talabani plans to travel to Tehran on Sunday to meet with Ahmadinejad and try to iron out details of a possible three-way meeting with Syrian President Bashir Assad, senior Iraqi officials said yesterday.

That move came as Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and Syrian Foreign Minister Walid Moallem met here and announced an agreement to reopen diplomatic relations, which were broken off in 1982.

In Washington, a State Department spokesman, Tom Casey, sought to play down the significance of possible three-way meetings, contending that past statements by Iranian and Syrian leaders have not proved productive.

"What we'd like to see the Iranian government do is desist, first and foremost, from negative actions it's taken in Iraq," said Casey. "As we have always said with respect to the Syrians, you know, the problem is not what they say, the problem is what they do."

Syria has served as an entry point and refuge for Sunni Arab insurgents who have waged a steady stream of attacks on U.S. forces and the fledgling Iraqi government since the American-led invasion of Iraq in 2003. Iran, a Shiite Muslim nation, holds strong sway over the Shiite militias that have increasingly attacked Iraq's minority Sunnis in retaliation.

Along with the debate over Iran and Syria, officials in Washington have been jousting over whether the U.S. should begin withdrawing its troops from Iraq.

Yesterday, President Bush, speaking to reporters in Bogor, Indonesia, said he has made no decision yet about troop levels in Iraq and that he was waiting to hear from the Pentagon.

Republican Sen. John McCain of Arizona, a likely 2008 presidential contender, has called for boosting the force beyond the roughly 140,000 now here; others are calling for the establishment of a timetable for pulling out U.S. troops or of focusing on the training of Iraqi security forces.

"I say go Iraqi," said Rep. Duncan Hunter, a California Republican who is the outgoing chairman of the House Armed Services Committee. "It doesn't make sense to plan American deployments before you utilize all the Iraqi forces."

Senior Iraqi officials say that Ahmadinejad's summit proposal was the impetus behind the current meetings between Iraqi leaders and Syrian Foreign Minister Moallem, the highest-level talks between the two Arab neighbors since the American-led invasion.

Ahmadinejad first proposed three-way negotiations last year but was refused by then-Prime Minister Ibrahim Jafari. Jafari and his advisers feared that the U.S. would oppose giving Iran an intermediary role in Iraq and also doubted Syria's intentions, sources said yesterday.

"We said we had issues with Syria and felt that Iran could not be a mediator," said a high-ranking Iraqi official with knowledge of the discussions. "At the time, we said that the Syrians know what our expectations are and they needed to make the first move - which they have done by sending their foreign minister to listen to our grievances for their involvement in supporting what we consider terrorism."

Solomon Moore writes for the Los Angeles Times.

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