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U.S.: Rice Skeptical Of Call To Engage With Iran, Syria

U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice (file photo) (epa) December 9, 2006 -- U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has reacted skeptically to suggestions that the United States should engage with Iran and Syria to try to stabilize Iraq.

In her first public comments on the recommendations of the Iraq Study Group report, Rice said in Washington on December 8 that if Iran and Syria wanted to help stabilize Iraq, they could do so without prompting from the United States.

The United States accuses Iraq and Syria of fomenting the Iraq insurgency nearly four years after the U.S.-led invasion.

Speaking at a Washington news conference with German Foreign Minister Frank-Walter Steinmeier, Rice said Syria and Iran could seek stability in Iraq if they wanted it -- without any prompting from the United States.

"I have to believe that if the assumption is that Iran does not want an unstable Iraq for whatever reason, or that Syria does not want an unstable Iraq, that they will act on that because it's in their interests to do so," Rice said.

Study Group Report

Talking to Iran and Syria was one of the main suggestions made in a report released this week by the Iraq Study Group. The report harshly criticized the Bush administration's policies in Iraq and called for major changes, including gradually withdrawing combat troops and launching a major Middle East diplomatic offensive.

The United States has offered wide-ranging talks with Iran if it first suspends uranium enrichment, which can produce fuel for nuclear power plans or atomic bombs.

Rice reiterated she is ready to meet for direct talks with Iranian officials, but said Iran must first comply with UN Security Council demands to halt uranium enrichment before any such meeting.

An Iraqi reads about the Iraq Study Group report (epa)

"I don't think the Iranians are going to be prepared to neatly compartmentalize our discussions -- the stabilization of Iraq over here, the nuclear program over here. The Iranians have a set of interests and that's what I mean by compensation. Thus, it's best to do this within the context of trying to deal with the nuclear program," Rice said.

"The New York Times" reported on December 8 that the Iraq Study Group report boils down to what it called the "differing world views of Rice and Baker" -- a reference to former Secretary of State James Baker, who was one of the main authors of the Iraq Study Group report.

Baker is widely seen as a realist who is keen on maintaining stability in the Middle East. Rice is seen as more of an idealist who would like to bring democracy to the region.


Speaking on December 7, Baker said the United States should engage Iran if only to reveal its "rejectionist attitude." And he said Washington should try to "flip" the Syrians.

"If we could bring Syria back, we could stop the flow of arms to Hizballah, because they are the transit point, and that would cure Israel's Hizballah problem. Secondly, they have the ability, in my opinion, to get Hamas to recognize Israel's right to exist, which should give Israel a negotiating partner on the Palestinian track, something that Israel badly wants," Baker said.

It's on this last issue -- the Israeli-Palestinian crisis -- that Rice and Baker may partly agree.

The Iraq Study Group report says that working to solve that crisis would go a long way toward helping ease tensions in the Middle East and getting America out of Iraq.

Rice says she sees a possible opening there.

"I do think the Israeli-Palestinian issue is one that has now perhaps an opening to move that process forward. And I've said over the last several months that my own commitment and that of the [U.S.] president to trying to resolve this conflict is very deep and very strong," Rice said.

Nonetheless, Rice did not endorse the Iraq Study Group's call for a new diplomatic push to reach a "comprehensive Arab- Israeli peace."