- The Washington Times - Wednesday, December 6, 2006

Iran and Syria reacted with skepticism yesterday to a call in a bipartisan U.S. report that the Bush administration engage directly with the two Iraqi neighbors to end the violence and chaos in Iraq.

Top Syrian officials said they were ready to consider a regional diplomatic push on Iraq, but Iranian Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki told reporters on a visit to the Netherlands that a withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq was necessary before any diplomacy could be considered.

“The decision to withdraw should not need any negotiation with Iran or other countries in the region,” Mr. Mottaki said.

Tehran and Damascus have emerged critical to the policy shift advocated by the Iraq Study Group, headed by former Secretary of State James A. Baker III and former Rep. Lee H. Hamilton, Indiana Democrat.

In addition to assembling a broad international support group to help Iraq’s struggling government, “the United States should engage directly with Iran and Syria in order to try to obtain their commitment to constructive policies toward Iraq and other regional issues,” the report said.

President Bush has shown little inclination to expand ties with either country, and administration officials say both have helped fuel the sectarian and terrorist violence that has destabilized Iraq.

State Department spokesman Sean McCormack noted that the United States has offered to talk with Iran if it halts work on its suspected nuclear weapons programs, and the U.S. has an embassy in Damascus if it wants to engage Syria.

Both Mr. Mottaki and Syrian Vice President Farouk al-Sharaa said they welcomed the report’s clear statement that U.S. policy in Iraq is not working.

“We are not so arrogant to say that Syria and Iran can solve Iraq’s problems,” Mr. al-Sharaa told a political conference in Damascus. “The entire international community may not be able to solve it. But let [the United States] be a little bit modest and accept whoever has the capacity to help.”

Iran and Syria “are Iraq’s neighbors, and without getting them involved it will not be easy to find a solution to the predicament in Iraq,” he said.

It was not clear what price the two countries would demand in return for entering such talks. The Baker panel suggested offering trade and diplomatic sweeteners to both states, as well as an enhanced U.S. push to support an Arab-Israeli peace deal that could help Syria recover the Golan Heights now occupied by Israel.

But the U.S. panel rejected the idea of linking Iran’s cooperation in Iraq to the nuclear issue.

Reactions inside Iraq reflected the division between Sunni and Shi’ite power centers that have bedeviled the country.

Abbas al-Bayati, a top official in the Shi’ite-dominated United Iraqi Alliance, said, “We mustn’t jump into a regional conference without knowing precisely what we want other countries to help us with.”

Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki was said to be still studying the 79 recommendations in the report, but several top Iraqi officials expressed resentment at the implicit threat that the United States would speed up troop withdrawals if Iraq failed to pass specific “milestones” on political, economic and security reform.

The panel’s recommendation of a new U.S. push on the Palestinian question raised alarm in Israel, which has long feared that Washington would force it to make concessions to placate the United States’ Arab allies.

Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert had no comment on the report, but a senior Israeli government official called it “worrisome” that the issue of the Palestinians’ right to return to land inside Israel would be one issue on the table.

Palestinian Authority President Mahmoud Abbas welcomed the panel’s recommendation to revive the Middle East peace process.

“Resolving the Palestinian problem will open the way toward resolving all of the problems in the Middle East,” Abbas spokesman Nabil Abu Rudeina told Agence France-Presse. “All solutions must begin in Palestine.”

A spokesman for the Islamist movement Hamas said: “We hope that American politicians will learn the lesson of this report and will realize that their policies have failed.”

• This article is based in part on wire service reports.

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