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.
The agenda for the March meeting is still vague, but U.S. officials said they hope Iraq’s neighbor countries will discuss how they can support the new Iraqi government diplomatically, politically and in security matters. Iran and Syria haven’t formally agreed to attend the meeting, but “they haven’t said no,” said the State Department official, and the Iraqis expect they will attend.
The trick for the administration has been to gain Iranian and Syrian help in Iraq -- or at least, a cessation of harmful activity -- without conceding ground on the larger issues of paramount importance to those countries. The Baghdad conference appears to offer such a finesse. It begins contact, but leaves diplomatic “grand bargains" -- that would address the Iranian nuclear program or Syria’s role in Lebanon -- for other times and venues.
News of the Baghdad meeting comes as the administration is facing severe pressure from congressional Democrats over its Iraq policy -- especially the planned “surge” or 21,000 additional U.S. troops into the country. The administration surely is hoping that this show of international support for the government of Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki will quell some of the criticism in Washington. Administration officials are also likely to tout Monday’s plan on a new agreement for sharing Iraqi oil and gas revenues among the different regions and sects as a sign of progress.
But even as these diplomatic and legislative agreements are reached, the bombs continue to explode in Baghdad. And with all the leading Democratic presidential candidates already committed to plans for withdrawing U.S. forces from Iraq even as the Bush administration sends in more troops, there is little ground for bipartisan war policy.
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