Blair wants shunned nations to help solve Iraq fiasco

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Indy Politics

Tony Blair has urged George Bush to make a dramatic U-turn by drawing Iran and Syria into efforts to bring stability to Iraq and forge a long-term peace in the wider Middle East.

The Prime Minister joined a clamour in Washington for the US President to drop his hardline approach towards what he regards as two rogue states. In his annual foreign affairs speech to the Lord Mayor's Banquet last night, Mr Blair offered Iran a "clear strategic choice" - a partnership if it stops supporting terrorism in Lebanon and Iraq and accepts its international obligations, or isolation if it did not. His advisers said the same choice applied to Syria.

Mr Blair's spokesman denied his call meant a softening of British policy, which has always been keener on dialogue with Tehran and Damascus than the Bush administration, and would not involve concessions to the two nations. But he added that this was a "moment when people are rethinking policy, and the time to articulate a way forward".

Bringing both Iran and Syria in from the cold is likely to be one of the key recommendations of the Iraq Study Group, led by James Baker, the former US secretary of state, which is reviewing Iraq policy. It is also backed by Robert Gates, who will take over from Donald Rumsfeld as the US Defence Secretary after the Republicans' drubbing in last week's congressional elections.

MPs believe Mr Blair is seeking to exert leverage on President Bush over the Middle East at a time when he is weakened domestically and the influence of his neoconservative allies has waned. One Labour source described next month's Study Group report as Mr Bush's "get out of jail card". It is also likely to call for a phased withdrawal of foreign troops from Iraq.

Mr Blair will reinforce his message today when he gives evidence to the Baker panel for an hour by video-link.

But there are signs that the Prime Minister and the President are at odds over Iran and Syria, with Mr Bush declaring that Iran must first halt its nuclear programme. "If Iranians want to have a dialogue, they must verifiably suspend their enrichment activities," he said.

Yesterday Mr Bush met nine of the 10 members of Mr Baker's group. White House officials described the session merely as "a conversation" in which both sides had shared their views, and played down expectations the group might come up with a magic formula to restore stability to Iraq and allow the US to withdraw its troops.

But the pressures on Mr Bush to do precisely that intensified as a leading Democrat in the Senate demanded a change of course. "We must start a phased redeployment of US troops ... within four to six months," said Carl Levin, who is set to take over as chairman of the powerful Senate Armed Services Committee. "We cannot save the Iraqis from themselves."

In his speech at Guildhall, Mr Blair hinted at changes in Iraq policy, saying: "Just as the situation is evolving, so our strategy should evolve to meet it." He called for strong political efforts, led by the Iraqi government, to build up Iraq's governing capability, and the plugging of any gaps in training, equipment and command and control in the Iraqi army, while rooting out sectarianism in the police.

But he argued that a major part of the answer lay in "a whole Middle East" strategy. The starting point had to be Israel and Palestine, then Lebanon, and then an effort to unite all moderate Arab and Muslim voices behind a push for peace in those countries and Iraq.

Accusing Iran of "using the pressure points in the region to thwart us" he said it had helped the most extreme elements of Hamas in Palestine, Hizbollah in Lebanon, and the Shia militias in Iraq. "That way, they put obstacles in the path to peace, paint us, as they did over the Israel/Lebanon conflict, as the aggressors, inflame the Arab street and create political turmoil in our democratic politics," he said.

The Prime Minister insisted that the alliances Britain has with America and within Europe must remain the cornerstones of its policy in a changing world.

He said none of Britain's vital concerns internationally could be addressed without America's support. "We need America. That is a fact," he said. "Europe gives us weight and strength. In fact, in my view, Europe should be far more confident about its potential."

To critics demanding a more independent British foreign policy, he replied: "In today's world a foreign policy based on strong alliances is the only British policy which works."

The Conservatives described hopes of a breakthrough with Iran and Syria as naive, but the Liberal Democrats welcomed the call, saying it was in their interest to avoid a civil war in Iraq.