First Published: 2007-03-06

US President sees 'test' for Iran, Syria, on Iraq

Bush says upcoming international conferences on Iraq will prove intentions of Damascus, Tehran.


Middle East Online

By Olivier Knox - WASHINGTON

Bush: ‘prepared to play our role as constructively as possible’

George W. Bush challenged Iran and Syria Tuesday to prove at a pair of upcoming international conferences on Iraq that they are serious about helping to quell deadly violence there.

"These meetings will be an important test. They'll be a test of whether Iran and Syria are truly interested in being constructive forces in Iraq," he said in a speech to the American Legion US veterans organization.

The conferences will also "will be a test for the international community to express its support for this young democracy, to support a nation that will be at peace with its neighbors," said Bush.

Bush was referring to Iraq's call for a March 10 conference in Baghdad grouping officials from Iraq's neighbors as well as the five permanent members of the UN Security Council -- Britain, China, France, Russia, and the United States -- and the Arab League and the Organization of the Islamic Conference.

The US president also noted that there would be a subsequent meeting in April of foreign ministers from around the world, including US Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, to discuss Iraq's future.

Tehran said on Monday it was "not hostile" to joining its arch enemy Washington and other permanent UN Security Council members at the March 10 talks.

Iran's foreign ministry had stressed on Sunday that no direct talks were planned between Iran and the United States at the Baghdad conference.

The US ambassador in Iraq, Zalmay Khalilzad, said in a television interview that no decision had yet been taken on US-Iran talks at the meeting.

"We have not decided at this point with regard to anything bilateral, but we will be prepared to play our role as constructively as possible," he said.

Iran and the United States have had no diplomatic relations since Washington severed ties in 1980 in the wake of the seizure of its embassy in Tehran by Islamist students.

Any direct contacts between the two sides would mark a major break in the frozen relations, which have been marked by mutual recriminations and enmity over almost three decades.

Washington has repeatedly accused Tehran of fomenting the violence in Iraq and arming Shiite extremists who have carried out deadly attacks on Iraqis and US troops. Iran vehemently denies the charges.

In his speech, Bush also took aim at opposition Democrats now in control of the US Congress over their efforts to curb the war in Iraq and even in some cases threaten to cut off funds for US military operations there.

Bush said lawmakers have "a responsibility" to pay for the war and warned against "undue interference from politicians in Washington" in the way US military commanders in Iraq "carry out their missions."

And he assailed lawmakers calling for a withdrawal of US troops from Iraq.

They "seem to believe that we can have it all: That we can fight Al-Qaeda, pursue national reconciliation, initiate aggressive diplomacy, and deter Iran's ambitions in Iraq -- all while withdrawing from Baghdad and reducing our force levels," he said.

"That sounds good in theory, but doing so at this moment would undermine everything our troops have worked for," he charged.


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