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U.S. to join rivals in summit on Iraq

Times Staff Writer

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said Tuesday that the United States would join high-level talks on Iraq with the country’s neighbors, including Iran and Syria, in a move that may signal a new U.S. willingness to expand diplomacy with two adversaries.

U.S. officials said the negotiations could open the way to a broader dialogue with two nations the Bush administration has refused to meet one-on-one except under limited circumstances, but they also gave carefully couched responses to questions about how far Washington would be willing to go.

Asked about the U.S. refusal to negotiate with Iran about its nuclear program unless Tehran first suspends uranium enrichment, Sean McCormack, the chief State Department spokesman, told reporters, “Those conditions remain.”

At the same time, he and others appeared to be trying to leave open the door to talks on other subjects of mutual interest. “I’m not going to try to predict what the course of those diplomatic interactions might be,” McCormack said.

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Another U.S. official said that though it seemed unlikely that bilateral talks would grow out of the meetings, “we’re not going to rule anything out.”

“Our diplomats need a certain amount of flexibility to do their work,” said the official, who declined to be identified because of the sensitivity of the issues.

Administration officials do not want to cede any diplomatic advantage to Syria and Iran through talks, but they say they believe the two countries are in a position to help the beleaguered Baghdad government. They also may have concluded that appearing more enthusiastic about such diplomacy could ease criticism from the Democrats who control Congress.

Rice announced the U.S. participation in the talks while appearing before a Senate committee, and described it as part of a new “diplomatic offensive.” She noted that many lawmakers and the advisory study group headed by former Secretary of State James A. Baker III and former Rep. Lee H. Hamilton (D-Ind.) had urged a regional approach to dealing with Iraq’s problems.

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“This is one of the key findings, of course, of the Iraq Study Group, and it is an important dimension that many in the ... Congress have brought to our attention,” Rice said. “We’ve listened, and I want you to know that.”

The Iraqi government, which is organizing the event, plans one working-level meeting in Baghdad in March, and a second elsewhere in the region in April, which Rice is expected to attend. All five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council will be invited, as will other world powers, officials said. The meetings will focus on the challenges facing the war-torn country.

Rice’s announcement that Washington would take part came as the Bush administration encounters mounting criticism for its hard-line stance toward Iran. President Bush has sent warships near Iran, is deploying the Air Force along the Iran-Iraq border and repeatedly has accused Tehran of supplying Iraqi militias with weapons used against U.S. troops. At the same time, administration officials have denied that they are preparing to attack Iran, although congressional critics are demanding to know more about White House plans.

U.S. officials, starting with Bush, have long argued that direct one-on-one negotiations with Iran and Syria would be unproductive, and could benefit only Tehran and Damascus unless those two governments changed their behavior. That stance has brought the administration criticism from both political parties, foreign governments and Washington’s foreign policy establishment.

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The issue has also produced splits within the administration. Some officials, including many in the State Department, have contended that the United States, even while holding a firm line, should talk to Syria and Iran. Others, in the Pentagon and White House, have argued that bilateral negotiations would hand the diplomatic advantage to the adversary.

But officials have also said for years that they were willing to meet with Iran and Syria as part of a group to work out the security, economic and political problems facing Iraq. Indeed, they have met repeatedly with representatives of the two governments in different forums since the invasion of Iraq nearly four years ago.

They met with representatives of Iran and Syria in New York in September, for example, to discuss aid to Iraq. In November 2004, then-Secretary of State Colin L. Powell sat next to Iran’s foreign minister at a regional meeting in Egypt.

Rice’s announcement brought positive reaction from lawmakers who have been trying to push the administration toward more dialogue.

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“I hope this means that clearer heads in the administration are beginning to prevail,” said Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. (D-Del.), chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

The first, working-level session of the new talks will include “envoys,” such as U.S. Ambassador to Iraq Zalmay Khalilzad and Rice’s senior Iraq advisor, David Satterfield. The second meeting is to include foreign ministers of all the countries present for the first session, plus those of the G-8 group of largest industrial nations. That meeting probably will be held outside of Iraq because of the dangerous environment in Baghdad, officials said.

The agenda has not yet been set, but the Iraqi government has been pressing its neighbors to try to cut off the flow of arms, militants and money across its borders; as a result, the discussion could lead to an exchange of views on U.S. claims that Iran has been sending sophisticated explosive devices to Iraq.

Iraq has also been pushing its neighbors to provide more economic aid, and to fulfill pledges of aid that have been ignored for years. By including world powers in the discussion, the Iraqis may hope to bring in more aid as well as expertise from new sources.

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Baghdad has also been eager for increased political and diplomatic support from its neighbors. Several do not have embassies or ambassadors in the country. Some Sunni Arab governments believe that Iraq has been captured by a Shiite bloc and seek to limit contacts with it, Iraqi officials complain.

Though some U.S. officials have high hopes for the meeting, they acknowledge that the Iranians and Syrians may not participate vigorously, as has been the case at several meetings the Iraqis have organized, a U.S. official said.

Iraqi leaders face a delicate task in handling neighboring Iran, at various times a cultural, political and military patron to many of the former exile groups running Iraq. Isolated from the rest of the Middle East, Iraqis have come to depend on Iran for trade and energy. Iran’s non-energy exports to Iraq totaled $1.3 billion since last March, the Iran-Iraq Chamber of Commerce announced this week.

Iraq is eager to convince other neighbors, such as Syria, Saudi Arabia and Jordan, that they have a stake in the country’s future.

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Shiite and Kurdish leaders of Iraq long have advocated a regional conference to bolster diplomatic support for the fledgling government. Many Iraqi officials have suggested that all the tools that have been used to bring about an end to recent civil wars in various nations should be brought to bear to halt Iraq’s sectarian violence. That includes international conferences such as the 1995 talks in Dayton, Ohio, that brought about an end to the civil war in the former Yugoslavia.

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paul.richter@latimes.com

Times staff writer Borzou Daragahi in Amman, Jordan, contributed to this report.

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