Former Secretaries of State Henry Kissinger and Madeleine Albright urged President Bush on Wednesday to go beyond a planned buildup of U.S. forces in Iraq to develop a comprehensive strategy for the area.

They called for wide-ranging talks with Iraq's neighbors, including Iran and Syria, and increased autonomy for clashing Iraqi groups. The administration has brushed aside the proposal to engage Syria and Iran.

Kissinger, who served under Presidents Nixon and Ford, said the planned buildup of 21,500 U.S. troops appears to be "the best way to get the maneuvering room to the changes in deployment and strategy that will be required by the evolving situation."

"I think the focus has been on the surge," he testified. "My focus is the other way around: to explain the surge in terms of the strategy to which we should go."

The two former officials testified before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

Kissinger suggested a strategy that would permit large regional autonomy for the various Iraqi groups and a stronger Iraqi army.

And, he said, "All of this has to be in the context of a willingness to talk to Iran" because of its power, even though he did not think Iran "would help us in Iraq as such."

"What we cannot accept is an Iran that seeks to dominate the region," Kissinger said.

Albright, who was secretary of state under President Clinton, said she might have backed Bush's buildup in Iraq if it "had been tied to a clear and achievable mission, and if we were guaranteed our troops would have the best training and equipment."

"I think we need a surge in diplomacy," she said. But she also told the committee, "We are viewed in the Middle East as a colonial power and our motives are suspect."

Like Kissinger, she supported participation by Iran and Syria along with other nations in talks designed to keep Iraq from slipping into chaos. "One gains by communicating with countries with which one disagrees," Albright said.

She said the United States should avoid Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad, but "there are ways for us to speak to other people" in Iran.

Kissinger said the U.S. should always be ready to negotiate with governments with which it disagrees.

Their views resonated with the committee, several of whose members have been calling for an international or regional conference on Iraq. Committee Chairman Joseph R. Biden Jr., D-Del., said the heart of the administration's present strategy — building a strong central government — cannot succeed.

"There is not enough trust within the government, no trust of the government by the people, and no capacity of the present government to deliver services and security," Biden said.

The Iraq Study Group, a private panel headed by former Secretary of State James A. Baker III and former Rep. Lee Hamilton, D-Ind., recommended in December that the administration engage in talks with Iran and Syria.