Differences over Iran, Syria complicating US strategy

AMMAN — US President George W. Bush’s plan to bring peace to Iraq, already facing resistance in Congress, also has highlighted differences between Washington and Baghdad over how to deal with Syria and Iran.

Bush and US officials say Iraq’s two large neighbours are supporting the insurgency, and American forces have twice detained Iranians in Iraq. Iraq, however, has recently been making overtures to Iran and Syria.

“We have to live in this part of the world,” Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari told CNN on Sunday. “We have to live with Iran. We have to live with Syria and Turkey and other countries.” It’s not the first time Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri Maliki’s government has taken a public stand at odds with Washington — despite the fact that the Iraqi leadership relies heavily on US protection for its survival.

But the differences between the two administrations could hamper efforts to forge a united strategy to deal with Iraq’s sectarian violence, while adding pressure on the White House to end America’s role there.

The differences over Iran and Syria may seem insignificant compared with the huge US political problems facing the Bush plan, including opposition in Congress and widespread scepticism from Americans. But they point to a deeper problem — a widening gulf between US and Iraqi perceptions of each side’s national interest at a time when Americans are growing weary of the conflict.

In announcing his new plan, Bush brushed aside recommendations by the bipartisan Iraq Study Group to seek Syrian and Iranian help in curbing the Iraqi violence. Instead, he accused both countries of aiding Iraqi insurgents and pledged to “seek out and destroy the networks providing advanced weaponry and training to our enemies in Iraq.” Administration officials insisted that would not include attacks against Iran or Syria. But Bush also said he was dispatching an additional carrier strike group and Patriot missile batteries to the region “to bolster the security of Iraq and protect American interests.” President Jalal Talabani, meanwhile, was making a landmark visit to Syria, the first by an Iraqi head of state in nearly three decades.

Iraqi authorities also were demanding the release of five Iranians arrested by US troops in Iraq recently for allegedly supporting Iraqi insurgents. The Iraqis described the five as diplomats who should have enjoyed immunity from arrest.

The idea of engaging Iran and Syria does not sit well with influential conservative groups within the United States and was rejected by Bush. Washington is deeply concerned about Iran’s nuclear programme and its growing influence throughout the entire Middle East.

The US military accuses Iran of providing weapons to Iraqi insurgents and to Shiite factions blamed for sectarian violence around Baghdad. US officials have likewise accused Syria of harbouring leaders of the Sunni insurgency and of allowing foreign fighters to slip into Iraq.

“Iran and Syria have been very much part of the problem in Iraq, and cannot be trusted to be part of a genuine solution,” wrote Middle East experts James Phillips and James Carafano in a study published last month by The Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank.

But there have been other points of tension between the US and Iraqi administrations.

Last summer, for example, Maliki, a Shiite, spoke out strongly against Israel for its attack against Hizbollah in Lebanon. Maliki also so far has done little to crack down on Shiite groups, despite strong US pressure to do so.

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