Baker met Syrians to discuss Iraq cooperation: report

Date: 11-18-06

NEW YORK (Reuters) - Former U.S. Secretary of State James Baker, co-chairman of the bipartisan Iraq Study Group examining strategic options in Iraq, has met several times with Syrian officials to discuss cooperation with the United States, The New York Times reported in Saturday editions.

The Syrian ambassador told the newspaper in an interview on Friday that Baker has asked Syria's Foreign Minister Walid Muallem during a meeting in New York in September: "What would it take Syria to help on Iraq?"

The Bush administration withdrew its ambassador to Damascus and has stated it will not authorize higher-level contacts because of Syria's suspected role in supporting terror groups, Iraqi insurgents and opponents of Lebanon's government.

But there has been speculation the study group chaired by Baker will advocate greater U.S. cooperation with Syria and Iran as the administration considers a change in course on the war after voters vented their anger over it in this month's elections.

Syrian ambassador Imad Moustapha told the Times that the New York meeting with Baker, which the ambassador said he had arranged, was "very promising."

Other members of the Iraq Study Group also attended the meeting at Baker's request, the Times reported, and Moustapha met twice with the group in Washington.

While Moustapha did not provide specifics, the newspaper reported that he told the study group "what actual things we can do, and what are the things that we cannot do. We were very candid with each other. We explained to them why it is in our own national interest to try to help stabilize the situation in Iraq," the Times quoted him as saying.

The White House said on Friday that Syria could play a positive role in the region, if it desired, the Times reported.

"The United States and the international community have made very clear the constructive role that Syria can play in the region," it quoted Dana Perino, a deputy White House press secretary, as saying.

"Even the Iraqis have said that Syria and Iran have not been constructive in Iraq; they have not supported the Iraqi unity government," Perino added.

Neither Baker nor the study group's co-chairman, Democratic former congressman Lee Hamilton, would comment on the meetings with Syrian officials, the Times said.

An outside adviser to the group who spoke on condition of anonymity said that the panel had also interviewed the Iranian ambassador to the United Nations, Javad Zarif, the Times said.

Baker had a three-hour dinner in New York with Iran's U.N. ambassador Javad Zarif, the Washington Post reported earlier this week. The newspaper, which did not say when the dinner took place, said: "Baker made clear that he was not negotiating for the United States but that the commission wanted Iran's input and suggestions."


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