Blair calls for resolution to Israel-Palestinian conflict and support for Iraq
LONDON -- Prime Minister Tony Blair told the advisory group reviewing strategy on Iraq on Tuesday that a push for peace across the Middle East and help for Baghdad to root out sectarianism in its security forces were key to stemming bloodshed, his official spokesman said.
Speaking privately via video link to the Iraq Study Group, Blair set no timetable for the withdrawal of British or other coalition troops from Iraq, the spokesman said, but he stressed the importance of what he called in a speech Monday a "whole Middle East strategy" to counter militancy around the region.
The British prime minister, President Bush's closest ally in Iraq, emphasized the importance of a resolution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, which he said was "important in its own right, but also to take away the issue that was most exploited by extremist elements around the region," Blair said, according to the spokesman, who discussed Blair's comments on customary condition of anonymity in keeping with government policy.
Blair said a positive strategy for the Israeli-Palestinian conflict would help Britain and the U.S. win the support of moderate Muslims and increase pressure on Iran and Syria to work for peace, the spokesman said. He told the group he believed Iran was "a strategic threat to the region," his spokesman said.
"The only way to deal with Iran, he said, was not to back down on our demands, but to take away their ability to exploit Muslim opinion and to confront both it and Syria with the strategic choice of whether to be supportive of the solution, or face isolation," Blair said.
The isolation of Iran and Syria would likely have harsh repercussions for their economies, he said.
He said Blair had listed three key areas in which Britain, the United States and their allies should give support to the Iraqi government.
Blair told Baker's panel the Iraqi government needed support to distribute funding fairly across the country, to root out sectarianism -- particularly within the police -- and to "better equip the Iraqi army," the spokesman said.
"He said he believed the Iraqi government increasingly wanted to take control of its own affairs and to do so in a way which brought together the country as a whole," Blair's spokesman said.
About 7,200 British troops are based in southern Iraq, and Blair repeated to Baker's group that they would stay there until local forces could take on security responsibilities, his spokesman said. A total of 125 British troops have died in Iraq.
Bush and senior White House officials met Monday with members of the panel, which is led by Republican and Bush family friend James A. Baker III and former Democratic Rep. Lee Hamilton.
Baker's group, which aims to deliver recommendations on strategy in Iraq to Bush by the end of the year, also has interviewed outgoing Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice.
Americans are hoping the report will offer a more effective policy on Iraq, an issue that cost Republicans heavily in last week's midterm elections and put Democrats in charge of Congress.
Several Senate Democrats who spoke privately with panel members in recent days said Tuesday they expect Baker's panel may punt one or two tough issues if members cannot agree on a solution -- including possibly the military strategy in Iraq.
When asked whether the panel will recommend how long U.S. troops should remain in Iraq, Sen. Christopher Dodd said Baker's group might be vague in their final report.
"I think they'll probably be deferring a lot to commanders on the ground on how to do that," said Dodd, D-Conn. "I think they may talk about timeframes, but leaving the details to the people on the ground who have to make those decisions."
Remaining silent on how long the military will stay in Iraq would keep alive the bitter partisan debate in Congress. But Dodd and other Democrats who spoke with panel members said they think Baker's group will suggest other big changes to Bush's foreign policy, including the suggestion that the United States engage Iran and Syria.
"I think it's a fairly bipartisan view and I'd be dumbfounded if the Baker commission doesn't recommend the same thing," said Sen. Joseph Biden of Delaware, the top Democrat on the Foreign Relations Committee.
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