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Rice Rejects Overture To Iran And Syria

Bush called Iran part of an "axis of evil" shortly after the 2001 Bonn conference that led to the formation of the Afghan government, a label that Iranian diplomats have said soured Tehran's interest in cooperation.

In May, Rice offered to join talks on Iran's nuclear program if Tehran suspended its uranium-enrichment program, but Iran has rejected that condition. She said that Syrian officials have been unreceptive to previous entreaties by U.S. diplomats.

Negroponte noted that Iran was in a "defensive posture" three years ago when Iraq was invaded, wondering whether it would soon be a target. But now, flush with oil wealth, he said, it has become a major factor in the Middle East.

Rice said the administration's goal over the next two years is to give Iraqis the space to marginalize extremists and create a moderate middle that can hold the country together. The violence may not have ended before the administration leaves office, she acknowledged, but she said she hopes that Iraqis would "get to a place that is sustainable" by the end of 2008.

Although the administration is reviewing its troubled strategy in Iraq, Rice said the United States ultimately does not hold the key to solving the country's multifaceted military and political crises.

"The solutions to what is happening in Iraq lie in Baghdad, in their ability to deal with their own political differences," she said. The U.S. role is only in a support capacity, she said, reflecting the emerging undercurrent of the ongoing White House policy review to shift the mission from combat to support in both security and political reconciliation.

Rice said Iraqi officials have appealed to the administration to show greater flexibility and to hand over more responsibility to the new government, which was elected last December and took office in May.

Rice voiced support for Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki but said the full array of sectarian and ethnic leaders must be prepared to bring their diverse communities along in tackling the most sensitive issues, including political reconciliation and disarming militias.

The administration has been pressing this message in meetings with two of Iraq's most prominent leaders, Abdul Aziz al-Hakim, leader of Iraq's largest Shiite party, who was in Washington last week, and this week with Vice President Tariq al-Hashemi, the highest-ranking Sunni in Iraq's government.

"You can't ask a prime minister in a democracy to take difficult steps that nobody will back that up," Rice said.

Although Shiite militias and death squads are behind much of the sectarian violence, Rice said she believes that most Iraqi Shiites are "firmly" on the side of democracy. The Shiite-dominated government is committed to Iraq's national identity and does not want Iraq to be dominated by Iran, Rice said.

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