- The Washington Times - Tuesday, November 14, 2006

LONDON — British Prime Minister Tony Blair told the U.S. advisory group reviewing strategy on Iraq yesterday that a push for peace across the Middle East and help for Baghdad to root out sectarianism in its security forces were key to stemming bloodshed, his official spokesman said.

The British leader made his remarks to the bipartisan panel headed by former Secretary of State James A. Baker III as both Syria and Iran said they would not rule out talks with the United States on the future of Iraq — reportedly a key recommendation being considered by the Baker group.

But Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said Tehran was willing to talk only if the United States “corrects its behavior” in the region, a suggestion quickly shot down by the White House.

“I don’t think this is about a U.S. attitude adjustment,” said White House National Security Council spokesman Gordon Johndroe. “The collective attitude of the world is that Iran needs to play a constructive role in the region, not meddle in Iraq, and to stop its [nuclear] activities.”

The United States accuses both Syria and Iran of fueling insurgent forces challenging the U.S.-backed government in Iraq and of supporting terrorist groups in Lebanon and the Palestinian territories that have attacked Israel.

But yesterday’s diplomatic back-and-forth showed how much the report by Mr. Baker’s Iraq Study Group, now expected before the end of the year, is already driving the U.S. and Middle East policy debate, with both allies and adversaries bracing for a major U.S. course change on Iraq.

Speaking privately via video link to the Baker commission, Mr. Blair set no timetable for the withdrawal of British or other coalition troops from Iraq, his spokesman said, but had stressed the importance of what he called in a speech Monday a “whole Middle East strategy” to counter militancy across the region.

The British prime minister, President Bush’s closest ally on Iraq, emphasized the importance of a resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which he said was “important in its own right, but also to take away the issue that was most exploited by extremist elements around the region.”

Mr. Blair’s spokesman briefed reporters on background after the session.

Mr. Blair said a positive strategy for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict would help Britain and the United States win the support of moderate Muslims and increase pressure on Iran and Syria to work for peace, the spokesman said.

Mr. Blair told the panel that “the only way to deal with Iran” was to “take away their ability to exploit Muslim opinion and to confront both it and Syria with the strategic choice of whether to be supportive of the solution, or face isolation.”

Responding to press speculation that the Baker panel will urge direct U.S. contacts with both Syria and Iran, a leading official Syrian newspaper said in an editorial yesterday that Damascus “is ready for dialogue with the United States to achieve security and stability” in Iraq.

“The ball is in their court,” the editorial said.

Mr. Ahmadinejad’s comments were the highest-level statement to date from Tehran that it would consider direct engagement with the Bush administration on Iraq, though the hard-line Iranian leader gave few clues on how U.S. policy would have to change.

In a Tehran press conference, Mr. Ahmadinejad accused the Bush administration of pursuing a foreign policy of aggression and unilateralism, but said Iran’s Islamic republic was prepared to talk to any country except Israel.

“Should the United States correct its behavior, we will talk to them,” Mr. Ahmadinejad said.

David R. Sands contributed to this report.

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