U.S. Will Talk with Iran, Syria About Iraqi Stability The Iraqi government is inviting ambassadors from Iran and Syria to discuss security in Iraq, says Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. The surprise announcement came as Rice spoke on Capitol Hill with Defense Secretary Robert Gates about new funds for U.S. efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan.
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U.S. Will Talk with Iran, Syria About Iraqi Stability

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U.S. Will Talk with Iran, Syria About Iraqi Stability

U.S. Will Talk with Iran, Syria About Iraqi Stability

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From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.


And I'm Melissa Block.

Ambassadors from Iran, Syria and the United States will sit down at regional meetings to discuss security in Iraq. That surprise announcement came today from Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. She was on Capitol Hill with Defense Secretary Robert Gates. They were there to ask the Senate to support the president's request for $99.6 billion to pay for the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq.

NPR's Guy Raz joins us from the Capitol. And Guy, this was a hearing about money, and then came this announcement from Secretary Rice about talks with Iran and Syria.

GUY RAZ: Yeah. And it was fairly surprising, in light to the fact that, you know, especially over the fact that over the past few weeks the administration - whether it's been from the State Department or the Defense Department - has really been ratcheting up the rhetoric on Iran. Now, you know, before we get ahead of ourselves, I should point out that Secretary Rice really made sure to couch this new initiative in language that sort of makes it seem as if Iraq, and not the United States, is behind it.

Now ostensibly what's going to happen is that in early March the Iraqis are going to convene some kind of regional summit to discuss its security problems. And at that summit, Syrian and Iranian representatives will be there, and of course American representatives. So this essentially amounts to one of the first really significant public meetings between the U.S. and these other countries, you know, in more than two decades.

BLOCK: And this is something that the administration has been opposed to for some time. Why now? Why would the administration be now agreeing to sit down around the same table as Iranian and Syrian representatives?

RAZ: You know, Melissa, sitting in that hearing room today, I think the answer to that question becomes so self-evident. The power base has shifted in Congress. The Democrats are in control. And, you know, really for the past month you have seen all kinds, a whole series of resolutions and measures. The House passed this resolution opposing the president's surge.

And now there's a whole set of proposals out there, you know, ranging from de-authorizing the original resolution that allowed the Iraq invasion in the first place back in 2002. Some members of Congress are trying to figure out ways to tie funding to the troop readiness. And then of course this Iraq Study Group report that came out last December, and a lot of members of Congress support it.

And that report, that bipartisan report, essentially suggested that the administration should find a way to engage the Iranians. So the administration is under a lot of pressure politically from Congress, you know, and Secretary Rice basically acknowledged that in her testimony today.

BLOCK: Speaking of funding, we mentioned that Secretaries Rice and Gates were before the Senate Appropriations Committee to ask for supplemental funding to pay for the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Didn't Congress do that already last fall?

RAZ: Yeah. In fact, it did to the tune of $70 billion, in fact. And in that short period of time, those few months, the Defense Department has actually discovered that it's going to need a lot more money to fund the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. So right now the White House has been asking for an additional $100 billion. It's called a supplemental funding. That's billion dollars to fund just the Iraq and Afghan military operations, and only until the end of this year.

Now, granted you have what the White House calls the surge, and of course that additional money is directly related to that plan to increase or surge the number of troops in Iraq and also in Afghanistan. And the more troops in those two countries, means more money - everything from up-armored Humvees and body armor, night vision goggles.

Now this isn't just $100 billion in extra defense spending. This is only money for Iraq and Afghanistan. And as one senator pointed out in the hearings today, Congress has allocated more than $3.2 trillion for defense spending since President Bush took office in 2001.

BLOCK: Does it seem that the Senate will support the request for another $100 billion?

RAZ: You know, Melissa, it does. If and only if because the Democrats understand that if they do block this funding, it could appear as if they're not backing the troops. And, you know, earlier today I was at the Pentagon, and three senior Army officials were briefing reporters.

And one of the points they made over and over again is that if Congress delays this funding, it essentially will delay delivery of weapons and armor to the field to the soldiers in Iraq.

BLOCK: Okay. NPR's Guy Raz of Capitol. Guy, thanks very much.

RAZ: Thank you.

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