Tony Blair Speaks to Iraq Study Group

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British Prime Minister Tony Blair spoke Tuesday with the bipartisan U.S. panel conducting a high-stakes review of strategy on Iraq -- only weeks after his governing Labour Party voted down a proposal for an inquiry into planning for the occupation.

Blair spoke privately via video link to the Iraq Study Group, headed by former U.S. Secretary of State James A. Baker III and former Democratic Rep. Lee Hamilton, Blair's Downing Street office said.

U.S. President George W. Bush and senior White House officials met with members of the panel Monday.

Baker's group, which aims to deliver recommendations on strategy in Iraq to Bush by the end of the year, also has interviewed outgoing Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.

Americans are hoping the report will offer a more effective way forward on Iraq, an issue that cost Bush's Republicans heavily in last week's midterm elections and put Democrats in charge of both houses of Congress.

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Britain's death toll in Iraq rose to 125 with the deaths of four soldiers in a waterway bomb attack Sunday, further fueling calls for a strategic rethink in London. Around 7,200 British troops are based in southern Iraq, and the conflict has cost Britain more than 4 billion pounds (US$7.6 billion; euro5.98 billion) since 2003, according to government figures.

Blair has repeatedly said British troops will remain in Iraq until Iraqi forces can take responsibility for their nation's security.

In a speech Monday, he said the West should press neighboring Iran to help stem bloodshed in Iraq and build stability across the Middle East. His office says he also wants to encourage dialogue with Syria.

Because much of the militancy in Iraq comes from outside its borders, Blair argued that what he called a "whole Middle East strategy" was needed to counter it.

Resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict must be the core of such an approach, he said, followed by efforts to stabilize Lebanon and unite moderate Arabs and Muslims behind a push for peace in those countries and in Iraq.

"Just as it is, in significant part, forces outside Iraq that are trying to create mayhem inside Iraq, so we have to have a strategy that pins them back not only in Iraq, but outside of it, too," Blair said in his annual address to a dinner hosted by the Lord Mayor of London, the ceremonial head of the financial district.

Iran is using Middle East pressure points to try to thwart Britain and the U.S., Blair said, accusing Tehran of aiding Shiite militias in Iraq, Hezbollah in Lebanon and the most extreme elements of Hamas in the Palestinian territories.

If Tehran ceased support for extremists and acceded to demands to suspend its uranium enrichment program, "a new partnership is possible," Blair said. "Alternatively they face the consequences of not doing so -- isolation," he said.

Two weeks ago Blair's governing Labour Party blocked a proposal from House of Commons lawmakers who had demanded the appointment of a panel of legislators to scrutinize planning for security in Iraq after the fall of Saddam Hussein.

Following the British parliament's first major debate on the war since 2003, legislators voted 298 to 273 against the motion.

Opposition Conservatives called on Blair to share his assessment of Iraq with Britain's parliament, demanding a statement during Wednesday's ceremonial opening of the legislative year.

William Hague, the Conservative Party's foreign affairs spokesman, also urged Blair to press the Baker commission to recommend action on corruption and the slow pace of reconstruction in Iraq.

"Without success in these areas, there will be a risk of collapse when coalition troops withdraw," he said.

"It is galling that the prime minister will outline his ideas regarding a strategy change to the Baker commission, when the government has refused parliament the same opportunity," said Menzies Campbell, leader of Britain's third party, the Liberal Democrats.