( LatWp ) - Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said that the United States will join high-level talks over Iraq with the country's neighbors, including Iran and Syria, in a move that may signal a new U.S. willingness to expand diplomacy with two adversaries.
U.S. officials said the talks could open the way to a broader dialogue with two nations the administration has refused to meet one-on-one except under limited circumstances, but they also gave carefully couched responses to questions about how far the administration would be willing to go.
Asked about the U.S. refusal to negotiate with Iran about its nuclear program unless Iran first suspends uranium enrichment, Sean McCormack, the chief State Department spokesman, told reporters: ``Those conditions remain.''
At the same time, he and others appeared to be trying to leave open the door to talks on other subjects of mutual interest. ``I'm not going to try to predict what the course of those diplomatic interactions might be,'' McCormack said.
Another U.S. official said that while it seemed unlikely that bilateral talks would grow out of the meetings, ``We're not going to rule anything out.''
``Our diplomats need a certain amount of flexibility to do their work,'' said the official, who declined to be identified because of the sensitivity of the issues.
While administration officials do not want to cede any diplomatic advantage to Syria and Iran through talks, they say they believe the two countries are in a position to help the beleaguered Baghdad government. They also may have concluded that appearing more enthusiastic about such diplomacy could ease criticism from the Democrats who control Congress.
Rice announced the U.S. participation in the talks while appearing before a Senate committee, and described it as part of a new ``diplomatic offensive.'' She noted that many lawmakers and the blue-ribbon study group headed by former Secretary of State James A. Baker III and former Rep. Lee Hamilton, D-Ind., had urged a regional approach to dealing with Iraq's problems.
``This is one of the key findings, of course, of the Iraq Study Group, and it is an important dimension that many in the . . . Congress have brought to our attention,'' Rice said. ``We've listened, and I want you to know that.''
The Iraqi government, which is organizing the event, plans one working-level meeting in Baghdad in March, and a second elsewhere in the region in April which Rice is expected to attend. All five permanent members of the United Nations Security Council will be invited, as will be other key world powers, officials said. The meetings will focus on the challenges facing the war-torn country.
Rice's announcement that Washington would take part came as the Bush administration encounters mounting criticism for its belligerent stance toward Iran. Bush has sent warships to the waters near Iran, is deploying the Air Force along the Iran-Iraq border and repeatedly has accused Tehran of supplying Iraqi militias with weapons that are used against U.S. troops. At the same time, administration officials have denied that they are preparing to attack Iran, although congressional critics are demanding to know more about White House plans.
U.S. officials, starting with Bush, have long insisted that direct one-on-one negotiations with Iran and Syria would be unproductive, and could benefit only Tehran and Damascus unless the two governments changed their behavior. That stance has brought the administration wide criticism from both political parties, foreign governments and pillars of Washington's foreign policy establishment.
The issue has also produced splits within Bush's administration. Some officials, including many in the State