U.S. Joins Regional Talks to Secure Iraq

The Associated Press
Tuesday, February 27, 2007; 11:20 PM

WASHINGTON -- In a diplomatic turnabout, the Bush administration will join an Iraq-sponsored "neighbors meeting" with Iran and Syria, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said Tuesday.

It marked a change of approach by the United States, which has resisted calls by members of Congress and by a bipartisan Iraq review group to include Iran and Syria in talks designed to stabilize Iraq.

The move came amid growing discontent over the war, even as President Bush rushes an additional 21,500 U.S. troops to Iraq and congressional Democrats struggle to settle on their next steps to end U.S. participation.

The administration said its decision to take part in the Iraq conference did not represent a change of heart, although the White House has accused both Iran and Syria of deadly meddling in the war. "We've always been inclined to participate in an Iraqi-led conference," White House counselor Dan Bartlett said.

The administration in recent weeks has increased its criticism of Iran's role in Iraq, charging it with supplying advanced technologies for the most lethal form of roadside bombs. The administration has accused Syria of harboring anti-Iraqi government forces and allowing weapons to cross its border.

Rice announced U.S. support for the Iraq meeting, to be held in Baghdad next month, at a Senate hearing in which Democrats pressed her and Defense Secretary Robert Gates to explain what progress is being made in the Baghdad security crackdown and how soon U.S. troops will be coming home.

"There is no end, I say, no end in sight," exclaimed Sen. Robert Byrd, D-W.Va., the Appropriations Committee chairman. He decried the spending of $10 billion a month in Iraq and Afghanistan amid raging sectarian and insurgent violence.

Sen. Patrick Leahy, D-Vt., asked Gates to predict how soon Iraq would be stabilized.

"The honest answer to your question is: 'I don't know,'" Gates replied. He noted that Gen. David Petraeus had arrived in Baghdad as the new commander of U.S. forces and that Petraeus believes by early summer he will have a good idea of how the new Baghdad security plan, now getting under way, will work out.

Noting recent speculation about U.S. military action to destroy neighboring Iran's nuclear facilities, Byrd asked Gen. Peter Pace, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, whether it was true that the Pentagon was planning airstrikes against Iran.

"It is not true," Pace replied.

"Categorically?" Byrd pressed.

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