By ROBERT BURNS
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.
"Categorically, sir," Pace said.
Separately, Democrats' plans to limit Bush's war authority and force a change of course in Iraq were faltering amid party divisions over how quickly and aggressively they should act.
Officials said Sen. Russ Feingold, D-Wis., and other anti-war Democrats balked Tuesday at a draft measure that had circulated in recent days with the blessing of the leadership. The proposal would have repealed the 2002 law that authorized Bush to invade Iraq, and given the White House a goal of March 2008 to remove all combat troops from the country except for those carrying out limited missions.
"I will not vote for anything that the president could read as an authorization for continuing with a large military campaign in Iraq," Feingold said in a statement after a closed-door meeting. "Deauthorizing the president's failed Iraq policy may be an appropriate next step if done right, but the ultimate goal needs to be using our constitutionally granted power of the purse to bring this catastrophe to an end."
Other Democrats said there was general agreement among the rank and file on legislation that would limit the mission of troops remaining in Iraq, but there was no consensus on a means for accomplishing that goal.
Meanwhile, House Democratic leaders are backing away from a proposal to scale back U.S. involvement in Iraq by withholding money for the war effort.
Rice, in announcing the "neighbors meeting" on Iraq, said a wide range of interested countries were being invited. She said it was the Iraqi government's initiative to ask Iran and Syria.
"We hope that all governments will seize this opportunity to improve their relations with Iraq and to work for peace and stability in the region," Rice said.
Her announcement was welcomed by Democrats and Republicans alike.
"Today's announcement is a first step, but it is not enough on its own," said Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid. "Our national security requires a robust diplomatic effort in the Middle East, and the Bush administration cannot again settle for mere half measures."
The bipartisan Iraq Study Group in December recommended U.S. dialogue with Iran and Syria, but until now the administration has resisted that course. Former Secretary of State James A. Baker III, Republican co-chairman of the panel, welcomed the shift in a speech Tuesday night. But he went further, urging the administration to include Syria in Mideast peacemaking with Israel and the Palestinians.
At the State Department, spokesman Sean McCormack said the agenda of the meeting would be set by the Iraqis.
"Security is clearly an important issue for the Iraqis. It's going to be at the top of the agenda," he said. "There are clearly issues that we have with respect to security in Iraq." He said roadside bombs, which are the leading killer of American troops and are in some cases linked to Iran, are "certainly at the top of our list."
McCormack said the Iraq meeting would not include any formal U.S.-Iran negotiations on Iran's nuclear program, but he did not rule out informal discussions. The Bush administration says Iran's nuclear program is aimed at developing nuclear weapons, but Tehran says it is for new sources of energy.
A U.N. Security Council deadline for Tehran to suspend uranium enrichment has just expired, and in response the U.S. wants the council to expand the limited sanctions the world body has imposed on Iran.
The Iraqi government announced in Baghdad that it was preparing the meeting for mid-March, and that invitees include members of the Arab League and the five permanent members of the U.N. Security Council _ the U.S., Britain, France, China and Russia.
A second meeting involving the countries' foreign ministers _ which administration officials said Rice would attend _ would also be held, perhaps as soon as early April.