WASHINGTON – The Iraqi government will get support from its American backers in talks with Iran and Syria as part of the ongoing efforts to bring stability to the war-torn country, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice told a Senate panel Tuesday afternoon.
The move signals a shift in U.S. strategy by the Bush administration, which has been dismissive of the idea of engaging the two countries and has blamed them for aiding the very people working to bring down the fragile Iraqi government.
Rice and other officials gave no signals that there would be any direct, bilateral discussions between U.S. officials and their Iranian or Syrian counterparts. But Rice acknowledged that it was an idea supported both by the Iraq Study Group, which issued its report on progress in Iraq in December, and a number of members in Congress, including Sen. Arlen Specter, who was on the panel quizzing Rice Tuesday.
Rice said that Iraq Prime Minister Nouri Al-Maliki, she and President Bush agreed "that success in Iraq requires the positive support of Iraq's neighbors. This is one of the key findings, of course, of the Iraq Study Group, and it is an important dimension that many in the Senate and in the Congress have brought to our attention," Rice told the Senate Appropriations Committee.
"I'm pleased to inform you that the Iraqis are launching a new diplomatic initiative which we are going to fully support," Rice said.
Rice characterized the initial of two meetings as an "expanded neighbors meeting" that would include representatives from the countries bordering Iraq as well as other countries, regional organizations and permanent members of the U.N. Security Council, including the United States.
That meeting would be followed by meeting — as soon as April — that would be a ministerial-level meeting.
"I would note that the Iraqi government has invited all of its neighbors, including Syria and Iran to attend both of these regional meetings. We hope that all governments will seize this opportunity to improve their relations with Iraq and to work for peace and stability in the region," Rice said.
Sen. Jim Webb, D-Va., issued a statement applauding the new moves.
"I welcome news of the diplomatic initiative for such a conference next month that includes representatives from Iran, Syria, and the United States ... ," Webb said. "The expectations the administration has placed on the al-Maliki government are greater than Iraq's ability to meet them without a regional approach."
The announcement came even as the United States is engaged in its latest confrontation with Iran over its nuclear program, which U.S. officials say is aimed at developing nuclear weapons but Tehran says is for new sources of energy.
A U.N. Security Council deadline for Tehran to suspend uranium enrichment has just expired, and in response the U.S. wants the council to expand the limited sanctions the world body has imposed on Iran.
At the White House, press secretary Tony Snow told reporters the administration is "happy that the government of Iraq is taking this step and engaging its neighbors. And we also hope and expect that Iran and Syria will play constructive roles in those talks."
But Snow cautioned people to be patient, noting that "this is one where the agenda is being set up by the government of Iraq. And the conditions, especially for bilateral conversations with the Iranians, are pretty clear."
The gathering could offer a forum for Washington to amplify its concerns about Iranian involvement in Iraq. U.S. officials claim Shiite militia receive a steady flow of arms and aid from Iran, including parts for lethal roadside bombs used against U.S. troops. Iran denies the charges.
The United States also has complained that Syria is not doing enough to block aid routes for Sunni insurgents, including the group Al Qaeda in Iraq, and has accused Syria of harboring anti-Iraqi government forces.
Rice and Defense Secretary Robert Gates were testifying Tuesday before the panel on the administration's budget request for the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
The Iraqi government announced in Baghdad that it is preparing the meeting for mid-March, and that invitees include members of the Arab League and the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council.
Officials said the conference is an attempt by the U.S.-backed government to seek greater regional assistance and study ways to fight insurgents and tensions between Iraq's majority Shiite Muslims and Sunnis.
Syria will be represented at the conference by Ahmed Arnous, an aide to the foreign minister, an Iraqi Foreign Ministry official said, speaking on condition of anonymity because the plans had not yet been formally announced. Other Arab countries and Iran have not confirmed their attendance or the level of delegates they would send.
Rice said the mid-March meeting will be held at the sub-ministerial level. That is to be followed, perhaps as early as the first half of April, by a full ministerial-level meeting with the same invited countries, plus members of the G-8 group of leading industrial powers.
"I would note that the Iraqi government has invited Syria and Iran to attend both of these regional meetings," Rice said. She also noted that the Iraq Study Group, headed by former Secretary of State James Baker and former Rep. Lee Hamilton, had recommended inviting Iran and Syria to such a neighbors meeting. At the time of that recommendation in December, President Bush rejected that diplomatic approach.
Some nations had expressed reservations about taking part in the conference because of security worries and political sensitivities. Some of Iraq's Sunni neighbors are wary about being seen as lending too much support to the Shiite-led government.
But Labed Abbawi, an adviser to Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari, said "there has been positive responses" from nearly all the nations and groups invited, which include Iraq's neighbors, the Arab League and the five permanent U.N. Security Council members.
"We believe all will attend," he said.
It is not known if senior-level envoys will attend, and no firm date has been set, said Abbawi.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.