Annan Seeks Summit Outside Iraq to Reconcile Factions

By Robin Wright and Colum Lynch
Washington Post Staff Writers
Wednesday, November 29, 2006

The U.N. Security Council unanimously extended the mandate for the 160,000-strong U.S.-led coalition in Iraq for an additional 12 months yesterday, as Secretary General Kofi Annan proposed an international conference at a venue outside the war-torn country to forge reconciliation among Iraq's political parties.

Addressing what may be the most controversial issue to face the Bush administration, Annan said that Iran and Syria should be included in efforts to stabilize Iraq.

"The two countries have a role to play, and they should become part of the solution," he told reporters, reflecting strong international momentum behind a broader approach to Iraq's strife. "And we should bring them in and get them to work with us in resolving the issue and let them assume some of the responsibility."

The Iraq Study Group, the independent, bipartisan U.S. panel that is wrapping up an eight-month search for alternatives, has been discussing whether to reach out to Tehran and Damascus. But on the eve of talks between President Bush and Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki, U.S. officials once again appeared to reject that option.

In its earlier discussions, the group of 10 prominent thinkers has explored ways to take a stronger regional approach to stabilizing Iraq, which overlaps with thinking at the United Nations.

In a surprise move, the panel heard last-minute testimony from Annan and Sen. John McCain, (R-Ariz.) a strong advocate of sending more troops to Iraq. Annan's testimony, by videoconference from New York, had been deferred from an earlier date, but the 10-member panel asked McCain to talk to them in a hastily organized teleconference, according to sources in McCain's office. The panel, which has held months of informal, secret hearings, was supposed to have finished its interviews last week.

Neither of the two options put forward by experts advising the panel called for deployment of additional troops, although the idea of sending as many as 50,000 more was advocated in testimony by other Middle East experts.

McCain's aides would not disclose the substance of the senator's comments but referred to recent media appearances. On NBC's "Meet the Press" this month, McCain warned that even providing a date for withdrawal would lead to chaos in the region.

"There are a lot of things that we can do to salvage this, but they all require the presence of additional troops," he said.

To stabilize Iraq, McCain advocated first getting Sunni areas under control, to show Shiites that they do not need militias to protect themselves from Sunni attacks. The present formula is "unacceptable," he said. He also predicted that the U.S.-led coalition is "either going to lose this thing or win this thing within the next several months."

The final report of the panel, headed by former Secretary of State James A. Baker III and former congressman Lee H. Hamilton (D-Ind.), is due to be released as early as next week, before Congress adjourns.

Late yesterday, the panel decided to continue meeting for a third day of deliberations.

At the United Nations, Annan said the world body could host a conference to bring Iraq's ethnic and sectarian parties together, modeled on efforts to create stability in Afghanistan and the former Yugoslavia.

"The security in Iraq today is a major constraint," Annan said. "If we were to work out an arrangement where one can get the Iraqi political parties together, somewhere outside Iraq, as we did in Afghanistan, the United Nations can play the role it normally plays."

But in a reflection of growing concern about Iraq's turmoil, Annan and other U.N. officials have suggested that the United Nations would not be able to fill the vacuum if the United States lowered its profile in the country or left Baghdad.

"We should be very clear Washington can't move the problem a few hundred miles north" to the United Nations, the world body's deputy secretary general, Mark Malloch Brown, said at a recent conference on the Middle East sponsored by Princeton University. "Nobody should operate under the illusion that there is any other force out there which can replace the U.S. The U.N. couldn't do it. The neighbors won't do it."

Bush is likely to face more pressure for a broad solution when he meets with Jordan's King Abdullah, who will host a summit between Bush and Maliki. In a speech to parliament yesterday, Abdullah said the Arab-Israeli conflict remains the "core" issue in solving all other major problems in the Middle East.

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