- The Washington Times - Monday, December 11, 2006

President Bush, opening three days of intensive talks with his top advisers in preparation for a national address about Iraq, yesterday pressured Iran and Syria into accepting responsibilities to their neighbor.

After a 90-minute meeting with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and other key State Department officials, the president said Iraq’s neighbors have a vital stake in the future of the fledgling government in Baghdad.

“We also talked about the neighborhood, the countries that surround Iraq and the responsibilities that they have to help this young Iraqi democracy survive,” Mr. Bush said in the department’s Treaty Room, flanked by Miss Rice and Vice President Dick Cheney.

“We believe that most of the countries understand that a mainstream society, a society that is a functioning democracy is in their interest,” he said. “And it’s up to us to help focus their attentions and focus their efforts on helping the Iraqis succeed.”

The president met in the Oval Office yesterday with “outside experts” on Iraq and meets today and tomorrow with U.S. military commanders and the U.S. ambassador to Iraq.

Last week, he received 79 recommendations from the Iraq Study Group. The bipartisan panel of 10 elder statesmen called for the United States to remove combat troops from Iraq by March, “subject to unexpected developments in the security situation on the ground,” and urged the Bush administration to engage terrorist sponsors Iran and Syria in direct talks.

Mr. Bush has rejected one-on-one talks with the two rogue nations, although he appears amenable to the idea of joining regional talks. White House spokesman Tony Snow said yesterday that “the Iraqis will be responsible for putting together whatever participants in a regional conference.”

“You are not going to have the United States or any outside partners put together a regional conference. That is the Iraqis’ to do, and we respect their right to do it. And we’ll take a look at their guest list,” Mr. Snow said.

The president said the advice he received yesterday at the State Department is “an important component of putting together a new way forward in Iraq,” which he will announce in an address to the nation before the end of the year.

“Like most Americans, this administration wants to succeed in Iraq because we understand success in Iraq would help protect the United States in the long run,” Mr. Bush said.

“There’s no question we’ve got to make sure that the State Department and the Defense Department are — the efforts and their recommendations are closely coordinated so that when I do speak to the American people, they will know that I’ve listened to all aspects of government, and that the way forward is the way forward to achieve our objective: to succeed in Iraq.”

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