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Syria, Iran will help U.S. with Iraq — for favors

Syria and Iran are willing to help stabilize Iraq, as the Iraq Study Group recommended Wednesday, but both countries will want something in return and neither has a magic solution to the chaos, Mideast officials and analysts said.
/ Source: The Associated Press

Syria and Iran are willing to help stabilize Iraq, as the Iraq Study Group recommended Wednesday, but both countries will want something in return and neither has a magic solution to the chaos, Mideast officials and analysts said.

Arabs paid close attention to the group’s long-awaited report — recognizing that Washington’s next moves in Iraq could have a major impact across the Mideast.

The region’s most popular satellite news networks, Al-Jazeera and Al-Arabiya, both devoted live coverage — with Arabic voice-over translation — of the release of the report at a Washington press conference.

The networks also repeatedly showed congressional testimony Tuesday by Robert Gates, President Bush’s nominee for defense secretary, who acknowledged the U.S. was not winning the war in Iraq and told lawmakers “all options are on the table.”

The bipartisan Iraq report warned that the situation in Iraq is “grave and deteriorating” and called for the Bush administration to try to engage Syria and Iran in diplomatic effort to bring stability.

At the same time, the report called for increased U.S. military support of Iraqi Army units with an eye toward pulling out most U.S. troops by 2008.

Bush has said he will take the commission’s recommendations “seriously” — though he has previously said he would not negotiate with Iran or Syria.

Offering help, not a solution
Syria’s vice president said Wednesday that both his country and its ally Iran are prepared to help.

“The two countries are Iraq’s neighbors, and without getting them involved it will not be easy to find a solution to the predicament in Iraq,” Farouq al-Sharaa told a political conference in Damascus.

“We are not so arrogant to say that Syria and Iran can solve Iraq’s problem,” he said. “The entire international community may not be able to solve it. But let them (the Americans) be a little bit modest and accept whoever has the capability to help.”

Iran and Syria have influence with both of the major groups involved in Iraq’s sectarian violence. Tehran is close to Shiite parties that dominate the government, while Damascus has ties to Sunni Arabs, their main rivals for power.

Iran is also believed to sponsor Shiite militias blamed for widespread killings of Sunnis. The U.S., meanwhile, accuses Syria of providing refuge for Sunni Arab fighters, including former Iraqi Baath Party leaders thought to have a role in directing the insurgency.

Bush says the countries encourage the violence in Iraq, though each denies backing extremists.

Syria’s ambassador to Washington, Imad Moustapha, said his country is willing to encourage Iraq’s Sunni Arabs to support the political process. But Damascus wants assurances that the United States will prevent Iraq from breaking apart.

“No party has a magic wand,” Moustapha said on the sidelines of an Arab Strategy Forum in Dubai. “Our paramount national interest is preserving Iraq’s territorial integrity.”

He called for a conference of all parties in Iraq — including Sunnis who support the insurgency, though not al-Qaida-linked terrorists — along with the nations of the region.

Syria, Iran likely to want something
Syria and Iran are likely to want something for themselves as well. Damascus may ask the United States to accept Syria’s influence in Lebanon, where Washington supports the anti-Syrian government.

Syria also hopes to regain the Golan Heights, lost to Israel in 1967, through renewed peace talks.

Iran, meanwhile, has demanded that American forces leave Iraq, a step that could push the Shiite-led government even closer to Tehran.

At the Dubai conference on Tuesday, Iran’s top national security official, Ali Larijani, called for the U.S. to set a timetable for “an exit or evacuation of American forces from the region.”

Iran also hopes for U.S. recognition of its civilian nuclear program, which Washington claims is part of a clandestine effort to develop nuclear weapons, said Mark Fitzpatrick of the International Institute of Strategic Studies in London.

Washington is not likely to yield on this point, Fitzpatrick said, but it could offer incentives — such a promise not to attack Iran, the lifting of sanctions and an end to restrictions on investment in Iran’s oil and natural gas industries.

No matter what the terms, if the U.S. turns to Iran, that will consecrate its status as a Middle East power broker.

“People say talk to Iran and Syria and the problem will be solved. It’s not that easy,” said Lakhdar Brahimi, a former U.N. envoy to Iraq. “If you talk to Iran you may solve one part of the problem, but you will create many others.”

Concern over Tehran’s reach
The Sunni Arab states of the Mideast, including some of the U.S.’s staunchest allies, may not accept increased influence for Iran, which is non-Arab and Shiite.

The Arab states already are deeply concerned over Tehran’s influence in Iraq and Lebanon.

“Talks with Iran and Syria will upset U.S. major allies like Egypt and Saudi Arabia, who don’t want talks, especially with Iran, in order not to give it more influence,” Jordanian analyst Salameh Nematt, Washington bureau chief of the Arab newspaper Al-Hayat, told AP.

Still, Arabs also want their voices heard after three years of feeling that the U.S. was ignoring them on Iraq policies. The Arabs blame those policies for the current crisis, which they fear could throw the entire region into turmoil and threaten Arab governments.

Jordan has urged Washington to pay more attention to the Arab-Israeli peace process, in order to undercut popular support for Islamic militants.

“The U.S. is in a weaker position than in the past, and it is in need to satisfy its friends in the Arab world,” Fahmi Howeidy, a prominent Egyptian Islamic writer, said in a column in the Arab daily Asharq al-Awsat.

He said Arab leaders should insist the U.S. listen to their opinions. “The age of U.S. monopoly of the tools of the game in the region is over,” he said.