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Iraq: U.S., U.K. Weighing New Policy Options

The scene of a car-bomb explosion in Baghdad on November 13 (epa) PRAGUE, November 14, 2006 (RFE/RL) -- Change is in the air as a bipartisan group of U.S. politicians briefed U.S. President George W. Bush on November 13 and will brief British Prime Minister Tony Blair today on their search for new options for dealing with Iraq.

The options remain confidential but both Bush and Blair are already stating their own positions ahead of the group’s expected unveiling of its recommendations next month.

Amid the growing debate over what new directions Washington can take in Iraq, the only clear signals are that the Iraq crisis is increasingly unlikely to be solved in isolation from the other crises in the Middle East.

Iraq is very much at the top of the U.S. political agenda following the November 7 election defeats for Bush’s Republican Party.

'A New Direction'

The focus is on how to forge a common Iraq strategy from the president’s current course and the opposition Democratic Party’s calls for “a new direction.”

The best hope for finding a middle ground lies with a congressionally established bipartisan committee that is now searching for new options.

The committee -- known as the Iraq Study Group -- is headed by former U.S. Secretary of State James Baker, who is a close associate of the Bush family, and by former Democratic Congressman Lee Hamilton.

The group has yet to speak to the press about its recommendations, which are expected to be made public next month.

But the media widely report that the 10-member group is considering recommending a phased withdrawal of U.S. troops from Iraq and the opening of dialogue with Iran and Syria.

The group’s meeting with Bush on November 13 and its scheduled video conference with Blair today highlight the hopes Washington and London place in its work, as well as the difficulty of its task.

Situation On The Ground

Bush indicated after his meeting with the Iraqi Study Group that the timing of any withdrawals of U.S. troops must depend on the security situation in Iraq.

"I believe it is very important, though, for people making suggestions [about Iraq] to recognize that the best military options depend upon the conditions on the ground," Bush said.

And Bush said he wants any dialogue with Iran -- regarding Iraq or any other matters -- to be dependent on Tehran first halting its uranium-enrichment program.

"If the Iranians want to have a dialogue with us, we have shown them a way forward and that is to verifiably suspend their enrichment activities," he said.

Those statements stake out a White House position that welcomes the effort to find bipartisan solutions on Iraq, but also forecloses some options.

It is impossible to predict what kind of compromise may ultimately be reached between the administration and its Democratic opposition -- which now controls both houses of the legislature.

Blair Urges Dialogue With Syria, Iran

But there are many voices trying to influence the outcome. They include -- from across the Atlantic -- Bush’s closest ally on Iraq, Tony Blair.

Blair defined his priorities for Iraq and the region on November 13 ahead of his teleconference with the Iraq Study Group today.

He urged dialogue with Syria and Iran because, in his words, the violence in Iraq “is the direct result of outside extremists teaming up with internal extremists.” He mentioned Al-Qaeda backing Sunni insurgents and Tehran backing Shi'ite militias “to foment hatred” and throttle democracy.

Blair said these elements were at play across the Middle East, making Iraq part of a wider regional challenge.

"A major part of the answer to Iraq lies not inside Iraq itself, but outside it, in the whole of the region, where the same forces are at work, where the roots of this global terrorism are to be found, where the extremism flourishes, where the propaganda that may be, indeed is, totally false, but is nonetheless attractive to much of the Arab street," he said. "This is what I call a whole Middle East strategy."

He demanded that Iran help build stability in the region or “face consequences.”

"We offer Iran a clear strategic choice: they help the Middle East peace process, not hinder it; they stop supporting terrorism in Lebanon or Iraq; they abide by, not flout, their international obligations," Blair said. "In that case, a new partnership is possible, or, alternatively, they face the consequence of not doing so: isolation."

The Core Issue

He also called the Israeli-Palestinian crisis the region’s core issue, saying it must be solved to stop the spread of radicalism, but offering no new policy proposals.

Blair spoke on November 13 as Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert visited Washington for talks with Bush. News reports say Olmert sought to underline the urgency with which Israel views Iran’s nuclear activities.

Amid the growing debate over what new directions Washington can take in Iraq, the only clear signals are that the Iraq crisis is increasingly unlikely to be solved in isolation from the other crises in the Middle East.

But whether that will simplify -- or complicate -- the prospects for finding solutions is something that will only become clearer in the weeks ahead.

Sectarian Iraq

Sectarian Iraq

Click to enlarge the image.

SUNNI, SHI'A: Iraq is riven along sectarian lines, faults that frequently produce violent clashes and are a constant source of tension. Sectarian concerns drive much of Iraqi politics and are the main threat to the country's fragile security environment.

THE COMPLETE PICTURE: Click on the image to view RFE/RL's complete coverage of events in Iraq and that country's ongoing transition.

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