Monday, February 26, 2007

U.S. Agrees to Meeting with Iran and Syria


The Bush administration has agreed to sit around a negotiating table with official representatives of Iran and Syria next month -- as part of a planned regional conference in Baghdad to discuss ways to stabilize Iraq.

In joining the Baghdad conference, the administration is tiptoeing into what has become one of the most contentious issues in the roiling Iraq debate. Critics for months have been urging the administration to end its diplomatic isolation of Iran and Syria and begin a constructive dialogue with them about how to stabilize Iraq. Even former secretary of State Henry Kissinger, who has generally supported administration policy on Iraq, argued in an op-ed piece last weekend that it’s time to end the diplomatic quarantine and convene an international conference on Iraq.

The Iraqi government is expected to announce the regional conference as early as Tuesday. The government will invite representatives of the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council -- Britain, France, Russia, China and the United States -- in addition to all of its Mideast neighbors.

Though it will bring together American, Syrian and Iranian representatives, the Baghdad meeting doesn’t signal a direct U.S. diplomatic engagement with Iran and Syria. A senior State Department official said Monday night that it wasn’t likely there would be separate bilateral meetings with Iran or Syria. Rather, the planned Baghdad meeting is an extension of the administration’s current policy of using the Iraqi government as the channel for discussions with Iran and Syria about Iraqi security.

The initial meeting, tentatively planned for the first half of March, will be at the ambassadorial level, the State Department official said. The American representative will be Zalmay Khalilzad, the current U.S. ambassador to Iraq, or his successor, Ryan Crocker. Khalilzad has long favored direct meetings with Iran. If the initial meeting goes well, a second meeting at the foreign minister level is planned for April....

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