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Iran and Syria try to upstage US in Iraq

President Mahmoud Ahmedinejad has invited the leaders of Iraq and Syria to a summit in Tehran this weekend to discuss ways of ending the sectarian violence in Iraq, upstaging the US and underlining the growing influence of Iran.

Washington is still casting around with increasing desperation for an honourable exit strategy from Iraq, a strategy some say should include bringing Iran and Syria into the negotiating process.

Apparently, Jalal Talabani, the Iraqi President, has already agreed to the meeting, and Syrian leader Bashar Assad is expected to follow suit. News of the summit came after surprise talks in Baghdad between the Iraqi Prime Minister, Nouri al-Maliki and Walid Moallem, the Syrian Foreign Minister and the highest ranking official from Damascus to visit Iraq since the fall of Saddam Hussein.

The two neighbours have the most influence on events in Iraq, Iran through its close ties with leading Shia militias that control swaths of the country, especially in the south; and Syria because of its role as conduit and safe haven, for terrorists and the Sunni insurgents.

The summit has clearly been deliberately timed to coincide with the reshaped political debate here after the Democratic mid-term election triumph, and the announcement of policy reviews by the Pentagon and the White House.

Most important is the impending report by the independent Iraq Study Group headed by the former secretary of state James Baker. The bipartisan panel is considering talks with Syria and Iran, a course thus far resisted by the administration, at least until Tehran suspends its uranium enrichment programme, which the US says is intended for a nuclear weapon.

In Indonesia yesterday, President George Bush said: "I haven't made any decisions about troop increases or troop decreases and I won't until I hear from a variety of sources, including our own United States military."

The Pentagon study, ordered by General Peter Pace, chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, is believed to have examined three basic options; a massive build-up of US forces, a gradual drawdown, or a speedy pull-out, or "redeployment", as sought by some Democrats.

The Washington Post says officials are leaning towards an addition of 20,000 to 30,000 troops to try to gain a grip on security, followed by a steady reduction of force levels, now 145,000, perhaps to about 60,000. Last week, General John Abizaid, the top US commander for the Middle East, told the Senate Armed Forces committee that a rapid pull-out would produce only an increase in violence, now at near-record levels.

This month the known death toll for Iraqis has already reached 1,370, the highest since April 2005. Yesterday 21 people were killed, among them Walid Hassan, a popular TV comedian who made fun of US forces and the government of Mr Maliki, shot as he was driving in Baghdad. In addition, 26 bodies of kidnap victims were found on the streets of the capital and other cities. Many had been tortured.

Separately, the Pentagon is said to be jettisoning the "Rumsfeld Doctrine" of warfare, that entrusts victory to smaller numbers of troops moving fast, helped by state-of-the-art technology. A new Pentagon manual reportedly states that a force such as that which went into Iraq must have human resources to maintain or restore civil order even as the invasion is unfolding.