U.S. Wary of Iran, Syria Role in Iraq

The Associated Press
Monday, November 20, 2006; 10:51 PM

WASHINGTON -- The Bush administration cast a wary eye Monday on signs that Iran and Syria were taking a more active diplomatic role in Iraq, even as debate in the U.S. centered on how many troops to keep in the war.

Just days after reports that U.S. officials were discussing a broader role for Iran and Syria, Iraqi lawmakers said Iranian leaders had invited the Iraqi and Syrian presidents for a weekend summit. A State Department official said that while strong relations between the three countries were encouraged, actions would speak louder than words.

In the past, said deputy spokesman Tom Casey, "while there have been positive statements from the Iranian government about wishing to play a positive role in Iraq, those statements haven't been backed up by actions."

He offered a similar assessment of Syria, saying the problem "is not what they say; the problem is what they do. ... What we would like to see the Syrians do is take actions to, among other things, prevent foreign fighters from coming across the border into Iraq."

At the same time, there have been indications that a special U.S. advisory commission is considering recommendations that could include a broader role in the region by Syria and Iran. The Iraq Study Group, led by Bush family friend and former Secretary of State James Baker and former Rep. Lee Hamilton, is expected to issue its report soon.

One military official close to the group's discussions said that one option could combine encouraging talks with Iran and Syria with shifting the U.S. military focus away from combat and toward training the Iraqi forces.

But members of the commission have expressed concern that working with Iran and Syria could require America "to enter into a de facto partnership with them," with possible trade-offs, said the official, who requested anonymity because the group's discussions have not been made public.

U.S. leaders, meanwhile, continue to debate how long and how many troops to keep in Iraq.

House Armed Services Committee Chairman Duncan Hunter said Monday that the U.S. needs to push more Iraqi security forces to the front lines. Other Americans, including some military officials, have suggested boosting U.S. troop levels to help train the Iraqis.

President Bush said Monday he wasn't ready to decide between the rival calls for more or fewer U.S. troops on the ground.

Referring to the Iraqi security forces, Hunter told The Associated Press, "We need to saddle those up and deploy them to the fight" in dangerous areas, primarily in Baghdad. Hunter, a California Republican who is interested in his party's 2008 presidential nomination, took a different tack from Sen. John McCain, a front-running 2008 hopeful who has urged that additional U.S. troops be sent.

Separately, a study of options for U.S. military action in Iraq is under way by a Pentagon group set up by Gen. Peter Pace, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

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