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Iraq: Rice Lays Out Regional Approach To Security

By Frank Csongos

WASHINGTON, February 28, 2007 (RFE/RL) -- U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice says the United States is joining the Iraqi government to launch a diplomatic "offensive" that includes inviting Iran and Syria to a conference on stabilizing Iraq.

Rice told a Senate panel on February 27 that the Bush administration hopes Iran and Syria will seize the opportunity to work for peace and stability in the region.

Rice's announcement reflects a policy shift by the Bush administration.

U.S. President George W. Bush has long resisted calls by some members of Congress and by the independent Iraq Study Group to include Iran and Syria in talks on the future of Iraq.

Looking For 'Positive Support'

The U.S. secretary of state made her comments at a hearing of the Senate Appropriations Committee that focused on Bush's funding request for the Iraq war. Rice said the idea was initiated by the Iraqi government of Prime Minister Nuri al-Maliki and that the United States has endorsed it.

"Prime Minister Maliki believes -- and President Bush and I agree -- that success in Iraq requires the positive support of Iraq's neighbors," Rice said. "This is one of the key findings, of course, of the Iraq Study Group and it is an important dimension that many in the Senate and in the Congress have brought to our attention. And I have had very fruitful discussions about how to do this. So I am pleased to inform you that the Iraqis are launching a new diplomatic initiative that we are going to fully support."

Washington broke off diplomatic relations with Tehran in 1980.

In recent weeks, the United States has accused Iran of supplying weapons to insurgents in Iraq, but has stopped short of directly implicating the Iranian government. The two countries are also at odds over Iran's disputed nuclear program, which Iran says is for energy production and the United States says is for weapons production.

In Baghdad, Iraqi government officials announced that it is preparing what Rice referred to as a "neighbors meeting" for mid-March.

Those invited will include members of the Arab League and the five permanent members of the UN Security Council -- the United States, Britain, France, China, and Russia. An Iraqi Foreign Ministry official said Syria will be represented by Ahmed Arnous, an aide to the foreign minister. Iran has not yet confirmed its attendance.

Two Key Meetings

Rice told the Senate panel that the March meeting would be followed by a second meeting involving foreign ministers.

"The government of Iraq is preparing for an expanded neighbors' meeting, first at a sub-ministerial level, that will take place in Baghdad in the first half of March," Rice said. "Invitees would include Iraq's immediate neighbors, as well as representatives from other regional states, multilateral organizations, and the permanent members of the United Nations Security Council, including, of course, the United States."

The second meeting, Rice said, would also include the G8 major industrial powers.

"This initial meeting will be followed, perhaps as early as the first half of April, by a ministerial-level meeting with the same invitees -- that is, regional states, neighbors, international organizations, and the permanent five of the UN, as well as, perhaps, the members of the G8," she said. "I would note that the Iraqi government has invited all of its neighbors, including Syria and Iran, to attend both of these regional meetings."

In London, the British Foreign Office welcomed the announcement, saying the British government would do what it can to make the meeting a success.

During the committee hearing, Democratic Senator Robert Byrd (Democrat, West Virginia) criticized Bush's policy on Iraq. The 49-year Senate veteran said the U.S. Congress "cannot continue to fund failing policies and failing strategies."

Copyright (c) 2007. RFE/RL, Inc. Reprinted with the permission of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 1201 Connecticut Ave., N.W. Washington DC 20036. www.rferl.org

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