Trying to avoid the collapse of an increasingly violent Iraq, the Bush administration is under growing pressure to ask adversaries Iran and Syria for help.
Negotiating with the pair would entail a major policy shift by President George W. Bush, whose reluctance to talk to them - and US enemies in general - has come under increasing criticism.
A bipartisan US panel looking for a way out of Iraq is considering recommending increased engagement with Iran and Syria as part of a broader effort to get more international involvement in the conflict and allow a US withdrawal. Here is some of the debate over the idea.
Q. How can Iran and Syria help in Iraq?
A. They could stop their alleged support for extremists creating the violence, the US says.
Officials have long charged that Syria fuels the insurgency because foreign fighters cross its border into western Iraq and because Damascus has allowed former officials of Saddam Hussein's regime to meet and plot on Syrian soil.
Iran is worse, the US charges: In activity officially sanctioned by Tehran - and through their covert special operations forces - Iran provides weapons and training to extremist Iraqi Shiite groups and sends technology over the border for roadside bombs, the No. 1 killer of American forces in Iraq.
Damascus and Tehran deny the charges and say they cannot control long borders with Iraq.
Yet as fighting among Iraqi ethnic and political groups intensifies, it's possible some of the warring factions would not listen to Iran and Syria, even should they press for an end to violence.
Q. What are the chances all three sides will agree to negotiations?
The White House has said that Bush will consider talks if that is among recommendations from the Iraq Study Group, a panel headed by former Secretary of State James A. Baker III, who served under Republican administrations, and Democratic former Congressman Lee Hamilton. Its proposals are expected next month.
Administration officials reiterated this week that Syria would first have to end its support for Iran and Hizbullah, but did not rule discussions with Iran. Without saying Iraq would be on the agenda, Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad said Iran would talk to the United States if it "corrects its behavior."
Q. Why would Syria and Iran want to help the United States?
A. Some say the idea is absurd. The two nations see justice in the drubbing the United States is taking in the war it started and, CATO institute analyst Christopher Preble said, take some pleasure in the notion that America has lost credibility and authority in the world because of it. And if Iraq collapses, Shiite-led Iran could expand its influence there, where Shiites are the majority, some analysts say.
On the other hand, spiraling violence between Iraq's Sunnis and Shiites is alarming the region. If it becomes a full-blown civil war, it could spill over borders and inflame Sunnis, Shiites and Kurds in Iran, Syria and elsewhere.
That gives Iran and Syria an interest in seeing that Iraq doesn't descend into much greater chaos, proponents of engagement argue. Also, Iran and Syria would surely ask for things in return, perhaps concessions on other disputes with United States.
Q. If the United States hasn't resolved other issues with Syria and Iran, how likely is it that negotiations on Iraq would be different?
A. There is considerable fear they wouldn't.
European nations negotiated with Tehran for three years over its alleged nuclear weapons program without satisfaction, Democratic Senator Joseph Lieberman noted this week, declaring himself skeptical of talks.
Foreign policy experts say both countries - but particularly an increasingly assertive Iran - would come to the table with greater power than they had before the US hand was weakened by its failings in Iraq.
Iranian officials have grown "strategically stronger .... because their two principle adversaries in the region are gone," said Preble. That's Saddam Hussein and the Taliban in Afghanistan, both ousted in US-led wars.
And talks over Iraq would be extremely complex, linked to other long-standing Mideast issues such as Iranian and Syrian backing for militants in Palestinian territories and Hezbollah in Lebanon.
Addressing that, British Prime Minister Tony Blair said Monday the West must talk to Iran and Syria as part of a broader new Middle East strategy that would include resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. And that, of course, has eluded a resolution for decades.
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