By Glenn Kessler and Robin Wright
Washington Post Staff Writers
Friday, December 15, 2006
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice yesterday rejected a bipartisan panel's recommendation that the United States seek the help of Syria and Iran in Iraq, saying the "compensation" required by any deal might be too high. She argued that neither country should need incentives to foster stability in Iraq.
"If they have an interest in a stable Iraq, they will do it anyway," Rice said in a wide-ranging interview with Washington Post reporters and editors. She said she did not want to trade away Lebanese sovereignty to Syria or allow Iran to obtain a nuclear weapon as a price for peace in Iraq.
Rice also said there would be no retreat from the administration's push to promote democracy in the Middle East, a goal that was de-emphasized by the Iraq Study Group in its report last week but that Rice insisted was a "matter of strategic interest." She reiterated her commitment to pursuing peace between Palestinians and Israelis -- a new effort that President Bush announced in September but that has yielded little so far.
"Get ready. We are going to the Middle East a lot," Rice said.
In a separate interview with Post editors and reporters, Director of National Intelligence John D. Negroponte provided an assessment of the situation in Iraq that did not deviate much from the Iraq Study Group's grim appraisal. He said the Iraqi insurgency could now finance itself from inside Iraq "through corruption, oil smuggling and kidnappings."
Rice's remarks indicated that, despite a maelstrom of criticism of Bush's policies by outside experts and Democrats, the administration's extensive review of policy in Iraq and the region will not yield major changes in its approach. Rice said that Bush could be "quite expansive" in terms of a policy review and that the new plan would be a "departure." But the president will not radically change any of his long-term goals or commitment to Iraq, she said.
Indeed, Rice argued that the Middle East is being rearranged in ways that provide the United States with new opportunities, what she repeatedly called a "new strategic context."
She said the range of struggles in the Middle East, such as the election of Hamas in the Palestinian territories, the conflict between Hezbollah and the Lebanese government, and strife in Iraq, represents a "clarifying moment" between extremists and what she called mainstream Arabs.
"This is a time for pushing and consulting and pressing and seeing what we can do to take advantage of this new strategic context," Rice said.
But she said democracy in the Middle East is "not going to be concluded on our watch" and acknowledged that "we've not always been able to pursue it in ways that have been effective."
"I take that criticism," she added.
Rice's comments on Iran and Syria were among her strongest on one of the key recommendations of the Iraq panel, co-chaired by former secretary of state James A. Baker III and former congressman Lee H. Hamilton. The report noted that Iran cooperated with the United States on Afghanistan and urged the administration to "explore whether this model could be replicated in the case of Iraq."
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.