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Democrats say Iraqi peace needs Syria, Iran

Written by: Staff
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WASHINGTON, Nov 19 (Reuters) US congressional Democrats today said Iran and Syria need to be made part of a West Asia meeting on Iraq, but Republicans insisted the United States' adversaries should first agree to conditions.

Carl Levin, a Michigan Democrat who is expected to head the Senate Armed Services Committee in the new Congress in January, said a solution in Iraq required the involvement of the two neighbors ''whether we like it or not. And we don't.'' Speaking on CNN's ''Late Edition,'' Levin said it was likely a bipartisan group examining options for Iraq led by James Baker, the former US secretary of state, would call for Iran and Syria to be included in the diplomatic efforts on Iraq.

Baker's group has already met several times with Syrian officials to discuss how they could cooperate.

The move would force the US administration to deal with Tehran and Damascus, which it has resisted. President George W Bush is under pressure to change his Iraq policy after his Republican Party suffered a severe setback in November. 7 elections.

Republican Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison of Texas said Iran must first agree to drop its nuclear ambitions, while Syria should agree to stop insurgents from crossing the border into Iraq and fomenting a Sunni insurgency.

''I think it depends on their behavior if they would be a positive force. But it does take prerequisites,'' she added.

Still, Hutchison said it was important other countries in the West Asia are brought together to help end the violence in Iraq.

''I think it is time for the others in the region to start taking some responsibility on Iraq,'' Hutchison said. ''I think we can have a good solution there.'' But Levin, who backs a phased withdrawal of US troops from Iraq starting within four to six months, said getting Tehran and Damascus to agree to conditions would take time.

''I would notify the Iraqis and the neighbors that we're going to begin that phased reduction because I believe that is the pressure point on the Iraqis,'' he said. ''That is the pressure point on the neighbors who do not want Iraq to disintegrate.'' COMMON INTERESTS A potential presidential candidate for 2008, Republican Sen. John McCain of Arizona, said he did not mind engaging with Iran and Syria, but said it would be difficult to find agreement.

''I think we have to understand that we not only have the Iranian nuclear problem, but the Iranians are on the ascendancy if we fail.

So it's going to be very difficult to find common interests,'' he told ABC's ''This Week'' ''Maybe long-term, it's in Iran's interests not to see chaos in the region,'' he said, adding, ''But in the short term, both Iran and Syria do not share the same goals that the United States of America does.'' McCain is proposing beefing up US troop numbers in Iraq to counter the insurgency, but Levin said that would send the wrong signal to the Iraq government and to its neighbors.

''We have to force the Iraqis to reach that political solution and as long as they think we're there, as long as they want us, it takes them off the hook in reaching it,'' Levin said.

Syrian Foreign Minister Walid al-Moualem, in Baghdad today, said setting a timetable to withdraw US troops would reduce violence in Iraq. His visit is the first by a Syrian minister since the U.S.-led invasion in 2003 and comes amid increased talks about Syria and Iran's participation in diplomatic efforts to end the fighting in Iraq.

REUTERS DKS PM0206

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