UK's Blair to discuss Iraq options with US panel

 
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LONDON, Nov 11 (Reuters) Prime Minister Tony Blair will give evidence on Tuesday to a US bipartisan panel that is reviewing policy in Iraq as Washington and London seek to stem violence in the country and draw down their troops.

Blair will speak to the Iraq Study Group, co-chaired by Republican former Secretary of State James Baker, via video link from London, his office said today.

''They are gathering evidence and ideas and we want to ensure they are fully briefed on our ideas,'' a spokeswoman said. She declined to give details of what Blair would tell the panel.

Blair is expected to support diplomatic approaches to Syria and Iran to engage them in helping to stop bloodshed in Iraq, an idea some members of the panel have indicated they favour.

The prime minister sent his senior foreign policy adviser Nigel Sheinwald to Damascus last month to hold talks with President Bashar al-Assad.

Britain has said Syria has a choice - to play a constructive role in the world community or to continue to support terrorism.

Blair is expected also to stress his strong view that a West Asian peace settlement between Israel and the Palestinians is essential to bringing peace to Iraq.

US President George W Bush is set to meet the panel on Monday following the trouncing of Bush's Republicans in mid-term elections, largely because of anger over Iraq.

Baker's recommendations could include a phased withdrawal of US troops in Iraq and bringing Iran and Syria into discussions on Iraq's future, analysts say.

The White House has insisted Bush is open to a change of tactics but not of strategy. Bush has been fiercely critical of Iran and Syria, telling them not to interfere in Iraq, and has rejected dialogue with them to solve Iraq's problems.

The likelihood of a US policy shift on Iraq has increased since the Democrats, calling for a change of direction there, seized control of the House of Representatives and the Senate in the November 7 elections. The poll rout forced the resignation of US Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld.

Former CIA boss Robert Gates, who will replace Rumsfeld, is a member of the Baker panel and has indicated he favours opening US contacts with Iran and Syria, as do many Democrats.

British Foreign Secretary Margaret Beckett said on Thursday she expected a ''continued reassessment'' of the way forward in Iraq but not a ''major upheaval'' in strategy.

Reuters AB RS2103

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