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Last Updated: Tuesday, 28 November 2006, 10:22 GMT
Iraq, Iran and Syria begin Mid-East shift
By Paul Reynolds
World affairs correspondent, BBC News website

The visit of the Iraqi President Jalal Talabani to Iran and the restoration of relations between Iraq and Syria are part of a series of manoeuvres in which new diplomatic horizons in the Middle East are being explored by all sides.

Insurgents under guard by Iraqi troops
Iraq wants Syria to stop foreign fighters from joining insurgents

Mr Talabani and the Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad provided the intriguing picture of a government leader supported militarily by the United States being greeted by a leader with whom the United States is in open confrontation.

For the embattled Iraqi government, these moves give it some hope that its neighbours believe that it is here to stay and that they must come to terms with it. But it also needs their help, given the high level of violence in Iraq, whether called civil war or not.

Iraq is using the restoration of ties with Syria for its own security purposes and is stressing that Syria must act to stop foreign fighters from crossing its borders into Iraq.

Clout and tactics

For Syria, the move gives it new clout in the region and a possible softening of its difficult relations with the United States.

It is a major move by Syria, given that it was hostile to Iraq for years. It sided with non-Arab and non-Sunni Iran during the Iran-Iraq war, though that was largely due to animosity between the then Syrian President Hafez al-Assad and Saddam Hussein, rivals in the pan-Arab Baath movement. Syria also fought in the coalition against Iraq in 1991.

Iran's President Ahmadinejad is a master tactician of the unexpected and presumably hopes to position Iran as a key influence in the future history of Iraq, which is dominated politically by fellow Shias.

It could be that both Iran and Syria see a chance to involve themselves in Iraqi affairs more closely, whatever the US says.

Problematic for Washington

The moves present the Bush administration with some difficulties. It is believed that the Iraq Study Group headed by James Baker and Lee Hamilton might recommend that Iran and Syria be brought in as part of wider efforts to help stabilise Iraq, but the administration is reluctant to get too close to two countries whose policies it so strongly opposes.

The US might therefore have little choice but to go along with all this
It has laid down for example that Iran must end its uranium enrichment programme before it can be considered as a diplomatic partner by the United States, something Iran is unlikely to do.

Getting the UN or like-minded governments to impose sanctions on Iran because of its nuclear activities will be harder to achieve if Iraq and Iran suddenly emerge as more friendly neighbours.

On the other hand Washington can hardly prevent the Iraqi government from acting, as the sovereignty of Iraq is supposed to be paramount. It might therefore have little choice but to go along with all this, especially since President Bush's position has been weakened following the mid-term elections.

Words and actions

So far the State Department has reacted to these latest moves by simply stressing the difference between words and actions.

"While there have been positive statements from the Iranian government about wishing to play a positive role in Iraq, those statements haven't been backed up by actions," said the spokesman Tom Casey.

As for Syria he said: "The issue here again is not the words, it's the actions that are taken, and certainly what we would like to see the Syrians do is take actions, to, among other things, prevent foreign fighters from coming across the border into Iraq."

Washington will at least be pleased to see that in the statement announcing the restoration of ties, Syria accepted the Iraqi and UN formula about the presence of US troops in Iraq. Instead of demanding their immediate departure, Syria agreed that they should withdraw gradually when not needed.

Military options

Meanwhile, there is more discussion in Washington about the next US military moves in Iraq. The Pentagon is reported to have put forward three options, known as "Go Big, Go Long and Go Home".

"Go Big" would see an additional 20,000 US troops sent to reinforce the 140,000 already there. This would be a short-term measure to get on top of a critical security situation.

"Go Long" would stress the build-up of Iraqi troops with US help.

"Go Home" envisages a timetable for withdrawal.

The Iraq Study Group is expected to report next month and decisions by the administration could follow not long afterwards.

Both diplomacy and military tactics are on the move. Paul.Reynolds-INTERNET@bbc.co.uk

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