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Blair calls for dialogue with Iran, Syria

British Prime Minister Tony Blair said Monday that the West should be open to involving Iran and Syria in efforts to help stem bloodshed in neighboring Iraq as he outlined his hopes for a new Middle East strategy.
/ Source: The Associated Press

British Prime Minister Tony Blair said Monday that the West should be open to involving Iran and Syria in efforts to help stem bloodshed in neighboring Iraq as he outlined his hopes for a new Middle East strategy.

Blair also rebuked critics who argue Britain’s close relationship with the United States has been damaging and also defended close involvement with the European Union.

“It would be in my judgment insane — yes, I would put it as strongly as that — for us to give up either relationship,” Blair said in his first major foreign policy speech since the Democrats’ congressional victory in midterm elections.

“Anti-Americanism or anti-Europeanism are not merely foolish, they are the surest route to the destruction of our true national interest,” he added.

Blair’s speech was delivered a day before he was to speak by video-link to America’s Iraq Study Group — a bipartisan Washington commission attempting to set a new course for the Iraq war.

In Washington, President Bush called Monday for worldwide isolation of Iran until it “gives up its nuclear ambitions,” amid concerns that Tehran is seeking to develop atomic weapons.

Speaking after a meeting with Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert at the White House, Bush also said Syria has to “get out of Lebanon,” although he did not rule out talks with Damascus.

Britain has sent more troops to Iraq than any nation besides the United States, and rising violence there — and a British death toll that reached 125 on Sunday — have heightened calls for a course change.

PM calls for ‘whole Middle East strategy’
Because much of the militancy in Iraq comes from outside its borders, Blair said a “whole Middle East strategy” was needed to counter it.

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

“A major part of the answer to Iraq lies not in Iraq itself but outside it, in the whole of the region where the same forces are at work, where the roots of this global terrorism are to be found, where the extremism flourishes,” he said.

Blair accused Tehran of aiding Shiite militias in Iraq, Hezbollah in Lebanon and the most extreme elements of Hamas in the Palestinian territories.

“They put obstacles in the path to peace, paint us ... as the aggressors, inflame the Arab street and create political turmoil in our democratic politics,” he said in his annual address to a dinner hosted by the Lord Mayor of London, the ceremonial head of the financial district.

The West must reiterate demands that Iran cease its support for extremists and suspend its uranium enrichment program. “Or alternatively they face the consequences of not doing so — isolation,” he said.

Blair’s address was aimed at promoting dialogue with both Iran and Syria, his office said.

The prime minister’s spokesman rejected the possibility that either country could be rewarded for cooperation in the Middle East peace process, ruling out any negotiations with Iran over its contentious nuclear program in return for support over Iraq.

White House considering
President Bush’s chief of staff, Josh Bolten, said Sunday the White House would consider opening talks with Syria and Iran if the Iraq study group headed by former Secretary of State James A Baker III and former Democratic Rep. Lee Hamilton recommended it.

In his speech, Blair made little mention of Syria — where his senior foreign policy adviser held meetings earlier this month — other than to emphasize that its interests were very different from Iran’s.

“There is a fundamental misunderstanding that this is about changing policy on Syria and Iran,” he said. “First, those two countries do not at all share identical interests. But in any event that is not where we start.”

He listed a number of ways in which he said Iran was obstructing progress in the Middle East, but leveled no such charges against Syria, perhaps seeking to signal Damascus that the West is ready to work with it.

Blair also said international forces must “plug any gaps” in training, equipment and command and control in the Iraqi army, as well as helping Baghdad’s interior minister root out sectarianism in the police force. The prime minister has repeatedly said that British troops will remain in Iraq until Iraqi forces can take responsibility for security.