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The Nation

Bush firm on Iran, Syria

The president appears unlikely to agree to direct talks with Iraq's neighbors despite a U.S. study group's urging.

November 29, 2006|Paul Richter | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — As pressure mounts for the United States to seek direct talks on Iraq with Iran and Syria, President Bush appeared Tuesday to rule out any change in his administration's policy toward those Iraqi neighbors.

By reaffirming a long-standing administration policy setting strict conditions on talks with either country, Bush indicated that he may be unwilling to accept an expected recommendation by a bipartisan commission assessing policy options on Iraq.

The commission members have said they want the administration to negotiate with Iraq's neighbors. But Bush said Iran must first agree to international demands that it halt development of its nuclear program.

"Iran knows how to get to the table with us, and that is to do that which they said they would do, which is verifiably suspend their enrichment programs," Bush said Tuesday in Estonia during a trip that will take him to Jordan later this week to meet with Iraq's U.S.-backed leader. "And then we'll be happy to have a dialogue with them."

Bush was less specific about Syria, but gave no hint that he had grown more willing to hold talks with leaders in Damascus.

The Iraq Study Group is meeting this week in Washington to try to reach a bipartisan consensus for a final report expected by the end of the year. Although members agree on the need to negotiate with countries like Iran and Syria, they have been divided on other key issues, including U.S. troop levels.

The 10-member panel, headed by former Secretary of State James A. Baker III and former Rep. Lee Hamilton (D-Ind.), was scheduled to meet through Tuesday, but will reconvene today in an effort to reach agreement on a final report.

Although Bush has insisted he will receive the panel's recommendations with an open mind, his views on the possible recommendations have remained unyielding. Other administration officials have joined him in emphasizing the disadvantages of trying to negotiating with Iran or Syria.

National security advisor Stephen Hadley, asked by reporters whether Bush was closing the door on new openings to Damascus or Tehran, reiterated the administration's long-held stance.

"What the president was reaffirming today is we made it very clear we are prepared to talk with Iran, and those conversations clearly begin with the nuclear issue," Hadley said.

Vice President Dick Cheney has repeatedly emphasized the disadvantage of direct engagement with the two governments. And other government officials have in recent days sought to bolster the administration's case by pointing to what they say are efforts by Tehran and Damascus to disrupt the region.

One U.S. official said there was growing apprehension within the government that the Iraq Study Group's recommendations for talks would become "a club that's going to be used to bash the administration."

Although many experts have been advising the study group to prescribe talks, there is wide agreement among hard-liners and pragmatists within the government that the idea "has serious downsides," said the official, discussing internal views on condition of anonymity.

Officials are especially reluctant to make an opening to Damascus at a time when Syria is seen as undermining U.S. goals in Lebanon and the Palestinian territories, as well as Iraq, the official said.

Although there may be less opposition to trying to engage Iran, the official noted that the administration had made repeated efforts to engage Tehran, but found them unproductive.

Mitchell B. Reiss, who was the State Department's director of policy planning during Bush's first term, said that the administration was "far from enthusiastic about engaging the Iranians in serious negotiations, and it's completely unclear that the Iranians are serious about engaging the United States, either."

Reiss, who is now vice provost at the College of William and Mary, said he believed it unlikely that such talks would take place in the short term.

"Or if they do, they'll be along the lines of the six-party talks with North Korea -- a lot of pomp and circumstance and not much substance to them," he said.

Meanwhile, U.S. intelligence officials have expressed new concern over Iran's role in the spreading violence in Iraq and have leveled new charges against the country's leaders.

Officials on Tuesday cited indications that the Iranian-backed terrorist network, Hezbollah, had sent operatives to Iraq to help train members of Shiite militias. The officials also said that Shiite fighters from Iraq had traveled to Lebanon for training with Hezbollah.

A U.S. military official said that Defense intelligence estimates suggested that as many as 1,000 to 2,000 fighters from the Al Mahdi army in Iraq had been trained by Hezbollah in Lebanon. But officials at other U.S. intelligence agencies cautioned that the actual numbers were probably significantly lower. U.S. intelligence concern about Hezbollah's role was first reported by the New York Times on Tuesday.

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paul.richter@latimes.com

Times staff writer Greg Miller in Washington contributed to this report.

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