Britain's Blair Speaks with Iraq Study Group

British Prime Minister Tony Blair meets with the Iraq Study Group via video conference. Blair has been pushing for greater participation by Iran and Syria to address the violence in Iraq.

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It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Good morning. I'm Steve Inskeep.

Gunmen, wearing Iraqi police commando uniforms today, kidnapped about 100 men from a research institute in downtown Baghdad. The victims were both Sunni and Shiite Muslim. In response, Iraq's higher education minister has closed all universities until security has improved.

This latest big kidnapping in Baghdad comes in the midst of a debate over what to do about Iraq. British Prime Minister Tony Blair joined in yesterday. He's challenging Iran and Syria to help stabilize the country. He said that in a speech last night to the annual Lord Mayor's banquet in London. It's the traditional platform for the British prime minister to deliver a speech on world affairs.

As NPR's Rob Gifford reports, this speech is seen as part of a review of Middle East strategy by both Britain and the United States.

ROB GIFFORD: Just as the situation in Iraq is evolving, said Tony Blair in his speech, so our strategy has to evolve to meet it. Blair laid out what he called his whole Middle East strategy, with the possibility of dialogue with Iran and Syria. He was careful to keep a hard edge to the offer. He doesn't want to be accused of going soft on countries he and President Bush still see as being sponsors of terrorism.

But clearly it's part of a new thinking on how to move forward on Iraq.

Prime Minister TONY BLAIR (Britain): We offer Iran a clear strategic choice. They help the Middle East process, not hinder it; they stop supporting terrorism in Lebanon or Iraq; they abide by, not flout, their international obligations. In that case, a new partnership is possible. Or alternatively, they face the consequence of not doing so: isolation.

GIFFORD: Experts and diplomats say it will be difficult for Britain and the U.S. to seek Iranian help with Iraq, at the same time as pushing for U.N. sanctions against Tehran over its nuclear program. British newspapers, this morning, were also skeptical of the offer. Iran and Syria were demonized to justify the invasion of Iraq, reads the front page of The Independent. Now, the article goes on, Britain and the U.S. want their help sorting out the mess.

Tony Blair also pushed for more to be done to solve the conflict between the Israelis and the Palestinians, an appeal that coincided with a visit to the White House by the Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert.

P.M. BLAIR: A whole region policy should start with Israel/Palestine. That is the core. We should then make progress on Lebanon. We should unite all moderate Arab and Muslim voices behind a push for peace in those countries, but also in Iraq. And we should be standing up for, empowering, respecting those with a moderate and modern view of the fate of Islam everywhere.

GIFFORD: Many experts, British and Arab, have welcomed Blair's raising of the issue of dialogue with Syria and Iran. Ghayth Armanazi is director of the Syrian Media Center in London, and a former ambassador of the Arab League to Britain.

Mr. Ghayth Armanazi (Director, Syrian Media Center, London): Syria has been calling for it for a while. I mean it's high time, actually, that Britain and, of course, the United States does make this kind of approach to Syria. The whole idea is to try to bring about some kind of consensus within and without Europe and that could - you know, it's not going to be easy, there will be difficulties ahead - but at least it's a new approach that will serve perhaps more promise.

GIFFORD: Today Tony Blair follows up last night's speech by conferring through a video link with the Iraq study group in Washington. Engaging with Syria and Iran on the issue of Iraq is an idea thought to be favored by some members of the panel. President Bush has in the past, spurned the idea, and yesterday continued to be cool to the prospect of such a dialogue.

Rob Gifford, NPR News, London.

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Study Group Weighs Options for Stabilizing Iraq

Former Secretary of State James Baker (left) and former Democratic Rep. Lee Hamilton i i

Former Secretary of State James Baker (left) speaks to reporters as former Democratic congressman Lee Hamilton looks on, Sep. 19, 2006. Baker and Hamilton are co-chairmen of the Iraq Study Group. Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images hide caption

itoggle caption Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images
Former Secretary of State James Baker (left) and former Democratic Rep. Lee Hamilton

Former Secretary of State James Baker (left) speaks to reporters as former Democratic congressman Lee Hamilton looks on, Sep. 19, 2006. Baker and Hamilton are co-chairmen of the Iraq Study Group.

Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images

The Group's Focus

The study group will examine four broad topics:

  • The strategic environment in and around Iraq;
  • Key challenges to enhancing security within Iraq;
  • Political developments within Iraq and formation of the new government;
  • Iraq's economy and reconstruction.
  • Source: Iraq Study Group

The Group's Members

  • Co-Chairman James Baker, former secretary of state under President George H.W. Bush
  • Co-Chairman Lee Hamilton, former chairman of the House Foreign Affairs and Intelligence committees
  • Lawrence Eagleburger, former Secretary of State under President George H.W. Bush
  • Vernon Jordan, former adviser to President Clinton
  • Edwin Meese, former attorney general under President Reagan
  • Sandra Day O'Connor, former Supreme Court justice
  • Leon Panetta, former White House chief of staff under President Clinton
  • William Perry, former defense secretary under President Clinton
  • Charles Robb, former U.S. senator (D-VA)
  • Alan Simpson, former U.S. senator (R-WY)

A bipartisan group is holding several high-level meetings this week with top policy makers in the U.S. and abroad, as it prepares to finalize its much-anticipated report recommending fresh approaches to the situation in Iraq.

The 10-member Iraq Study Group held closed-door talks with President Bush on Monday, as well as with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, Vice President Dick Cheney and other policy makers in the administration. On Tuesday, panel members held a video conference with British Prime Minister Tony Blair, a major U.S. ally in Iraq.

After meeting with the group, President Bush promised that he is "not going to prejudge" the panel's recommendations, which are expected next month. But he did caution against a sudden, major shift in strategy.

"I believe that it's important for us to succeed in Iraq, not only for our security but for the security of the Middle East," he said, adding, "I'm looking forward to interesting ideas."

The Iraq Study Group is co-chaired by former Secretary of State James Baker, who has close ties to the Bush family and served in the Cabinet of President George H.W. Bush, and by former Democratic Congressman Lee Hamilton. When the two men returned from Baghdad in September, they warned that the task before them — coming up with recommendations on how to bring peace to Iraq — would be extremely difficult.

But the Democratic sweep of Congress may have made the group's job easier. The elections showed a popular desire for a policy shift in Iraq and provided political cover for President Bush, whose first major move after the votes were counted was to oust Donald Rumsfeld as secretary of defense.

The study group was formed in March at the request of Congress, which called for fresh eyes on the current and prospective situation in Iraq. Their review has focused on four broad topics: security; political developments; economy and reconstruction; and the strategic environment in Iraq and the region.

The panel includes several former officials of President George H.W. Bush's administration who have been openly critical of the current Bush administration's Iraq war plan — including Baker and former CIA Director Robert Gates, the man tapped to replace Rumsfeld. Gates resigned from the group after his nomination.

The panel is not expected to deliver its final recommendations to President Bush and Congress for several more weeks. But media reports provide some clues as to what its proposal might include:

Talks with Syria and Iran: The study group is expected to approach the Iraq problem through a regional framework. One expected recommendation will be for a regional conference of all Iraq's neighbors who have a vested interest in making sure the violence doesn't spill over their borders. Already, Saudi Arabia is planning to build a 500-mile wall between it and Iraq.

Perhaps the most controversial recommendation, signaling the broadest policy shift, will be a call for talks between the United States and Iran and Syria. The White House accuses those two nations of helping fuel instability in neighboring Iraq, and supporting terrorism, and has consistently rejected the idea of direct talks with them. Many members of the Iraq group are considered pragmatists with a multilateralist worldview, who believe that dialogue is often the best route to conflict resolution. This week, British Prime Minister Tony Blair — whose country has sent more troops to Iraq than any other except the United States — endorsed the idea of engaging Syria and Iran.

Baker has said that enlisting the help of Syria and Iran could also pay dividends in the broader Middle East peace talks, because both groups have influence with the Islamist groups Hamas in the Palestinian territories and Hezbollah in Lebanon.

"My view is you don't talk just to your friends," Baker told NPR's Terry Gross in early October. "You talk as well to your enemies. You need to talk to your enemies in order to move forward diplomatically toward peace. And talking to someone, in my opinion, at least, my personal opinion, does not equate to appeasement."

U.S. Military Role in Iraq: Baker's public comments suggest the group is unlikely to endorse an immediate withdrawal from Iraq. "The choice really should not be one between picking up — i.e. cutting and running — and/or just staying the course," Baker told Gross. "I mean, there are other options other than just those two."

Those options could include a phased withdrawal of U.S. troops to pressure the Iraqi government to take a greater role in stemming the violence; temporarily boosting U.S. troop levels; and sending in more U.S. advisers to train Iraqi security forces.

Iraqi Government: Inducing the Iraqi government to step up its role in controlling the chaos — by disarming militias and negotiation compromises among warring Shiites, Sunnis and Kurds — is another key obstacle facing the United States.

Baker has said that he's against partitioning the country along sectarian lines — an approach favored by Sen. Joe Biden (D-DE). Baker's co-chairman, Lee Hamilton, warns that the Iraqi government must act quickly or risk losing the support of the Iraqi and American people.

"The government of Iraq needs to show its own citizens soon, and the citizens of the United States, that it is deserving of continued support," Hamilton said in September. He says that in the next few months, it's critical that the Iraqi government show progress in securing Baghdad, quelling sectarian strife and delivering basic services.

Proposals might include deadlines for the U.S. Iraqi leadership by which it must show significant improvement in its capabilities. That would help pave the way to recommend major U.S. policy changes in the event those goals are not met.

Economy and Reconstruction: The study group has enlisted the insights of experts in the fields of economics and reconstruction. A healthy economy (driven by oil receipts), high employment, and the rebuilding of Iraq's crumbling infrastructure are seen as crucial to the country's future. Until now, security has hampered much of the rebuilding efforts in Iraq, and violence is driving hundreds of thousands of people from their homes and jobs.

Whatever the group's final recommendations, Baker has made it clear that they will reflect a consensus opinion. But that could be difficult to achieve, given the various political and military advisers, from academia, the government and the private sector — who've provided input to the group. And there's no guarantee that President Bush will follow the group's recommendations.

Compiled from NPR staff reports.

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