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Baker: Bush may hold regional talks
The Iraq Study Group co-chair says Bush has not ruled out talking to Iran and Syria.
Last Modified: 09 Dec 2006 07:02 GMT
Hamilton and Baker handed their report to George Bush on Wednesday

James Baker, the co-chair of the Iraq Study Group, has told Al Jazeera that the US president has not ruled out talks with Iran and Syria - a key element of the panel's report.
 
Speaking to Al Jazeera's David Frost, Baker said George Bush had indicated that both countries could be part of a regional approach to the conflict in Iraq.
"He has indicated a willingness to consider having both of those countries as a part of a regional approach to the problem," Baker said.
 
On Thursday, Bush said he would only include Iran and Syria in talks if they agreed to end support for extremists and help Baghdad's fledgling government.
Baker, who appeared on the Frost over the World programmme, that was aired on Friday, alongside Lee Hamilton, the group's other co-chair , said that the US leader had been "positive" about the report when it was presented to him.
 
'A new approach'
 
The bi-partisan report also advised Bush to begin to withdraw US combat forces from Iraq by early 2008 to avoid "a slide toward chaos".
 

Transcript:

Al Jazeera's David Frost discusses the Iraq report with James Baker and Lee Hamilton.

It is one of a number of reports set to inform a change of direction on Iraq after Bush admitted on Thursday that "a new approach" was required.
 
The report calls for a diplomatic push that would include Iran and Syria and a sustained US commitment to Arab-Israeli peace.
 
Hamilton described Iran as "an important player," in the region and reiterated the report's recommendation for regional talks on Iraq.
 
"I think it’s helpful in trying to resolve problems if you talk to people and try to find out what their real feelings are."
 
Peace negotiations
 
Baker, a former US secretary of state, urged the US to attempt negotiations with the Shia cleric, Moqtada al-Sadr, despite describing him as a "thorn in the side" of the US and Iraq governments.
 
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Baker said that he hoped Syria could convince the Palestinian group Hamas to recognise Israel's right to exist.
 
The report also recommends that Israel return the Golan Heights to Syria as part of a peace negotiations between the two - talks that were ruled out by Ehud Olmert, the Israeli prime minister, on Thursday.
 
"It may be a steep hill to climb, but we don’t know whether we could climb it unless we try," Baker said.
 

US response

 

Condeleezza Rice, the US secretary of state, while defending her handling of Middle East policy on Friday, rejected criticism in the just released Iraq Study Group report of her refusal to bring Syria and Iran into talks on ending the chaos in Iraq.

  

Rice did echo the report's recommendation for a renewed push to break the stalemate in the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, though she declined to accept the panel's argument that such an initiative was linked to efforts to resolve the Iraq crisis.

 

Speaking publicly for the first time since the high-level policy panel released its scathing report on Tuesday on the situation in Iraq, Rice said: "None of us see the situation in Iraq as favorable, we all see it as extremely difficult".

  

But the top US diplomat put the blame for the ongoing turmoil  not on administration missteps but on Al-Qaeda and other extremists  stoking sectarian violence to "undermine the democratic  developments" in the country.

 

She rebuffed the bipartisan panel's strong recommendation to  open direct talks with both Iran and Syria, who are widely accused  of backing anti-US insurgents and rival Sunni and Shia extremists  involved in bloodletting.

 

"As to Iran and Syria, let's remember that the issue here is behavior," said Rice during a joint press conference with Frank-Walter Steinmeier, the German foreign minister

 

"In both Syria and Iran, you have states that have chosen to be on the side of th

"In both Syria and Iran, you have states that have chosen to be on the side of the divide that is fueling extremism, not moderation, and that is the essential problem"

Condoleezza Rice, the US secretary of state

e divide that is fueling extremism, not moderation, and that is the essential problem," she said.

 

"The fact is that if they want to help stabilize Iraq, they will," without needing compensation or prompting from the United States, she said.

  

Rice reiterated that Washington was willing to break a 27-year  rupture in direct formal contacts with Iran, but only if Tehran  complies with UN demands that it freeze nuclear enrichment and  reprocessing the US and others say are aimed at producing nuclear  weapons.

 

"I will repeat what I've said many times: I will meet my Iranian counterpart under those conditions any place, any time, anywhere.

 

"That's the offer. It's still on the table."

 

On the Israeli-Palestinian front, Rice said she saw a possible "opening to move that process forward" following implementation of a ceasefire between the two sides late last month in the Gaza Strip.

 

"My own commitment, and that of the President (George W. Bush), to trying to resolve this conflict is very deep and very strong," she said.

 

Describing the establishment of a Palestinian state alongside Israel as the "centerpiece" of Bush administration policy, Rice said: "I think we can begin to deliver on that promise, and my own commitment to doing so is very, very strong."

Source:
Al Jazeera
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