WASHINGTON—President Bush on Wednesday voiced his strongest opposition yet to talking directly to Iran and Syria as other administration officials acknowledged secret U.S. funding of opponents to Syria's regime.
At a year-end White House news conference, the president insisted that he won't deal with Iran until it verifiably abandons its uranium enrichment program and won't talk with Syria until it stops interfering in Lebanon and Iraq. Both stands are rejections of a key recommendation made earlier this month by the Iraq Study Group.
On Iraq, Bush said he's still consulting and hasn't made up his mind whether to increase U.S. troops there, but he insisted that "victory in Iraq is achievable." The president will outline what he calls "a new way forward" in Iraq in an address to the nation next month.
In addition, Bush said the Army and Marines must grow to fight "radicals and extremists ... for a long period of time" around the world. He offered no specifics but has instructed new Defense Secretary Robert Gates to develop a plan to bolster the ranks of both services.
His strongest language Wednesday concerned Iran and Syria.
He called Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad's government "out of step" with the rest of the world and chastised it for sponsoring a conference on the Holocaust that "heralded a really backward view of the history of the world."
"My message to the Iranian people is, `You can do better ...," Bush said. As for Syria, he said, "the message is the same."
He scolded the Syrian government for allowing money and weapons to flow through its borders to insurgents in Iraq and reiterated his call for Syria to end its efforts to destabilize Lebanon's fledgling democratic government.
With such comments, Bush rejected one of the key suggestions from the Iraq Study Group, a 10-member, bipartisan panel led by former Secretary of State James A. Baker III and former Rep. Lee H. Hamilton, D-Ind.
Some analysts believe that Bush's refusal to talk to Syria could be a crucial mistake and undermine his hope of sponsoring a new push for an Israeli-Palestinian settlement. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice will travel to the Middle East next month looking to reignite stalled peace efforts.
"The idea that we can't talk with the Syrians when we had talks with the Evil Empire, the Soviet Union, for decades is ridiculous," said David Mack, vice president of the Middle East Institute, a nonprofit group devoted to fostering knowledge of the region.
Rather than talk with Iran and Syria, the White House is taking steps to bolster opponents of the two countries' governing regimes.
U.S. officials confirmed Wednesday that the State Department has been quietly funding meetings of opponents of Syrian President Bashar Assad in Europe.
One official, who spoke on condition of anonymity because of the issue's sensitivity, said the meetings have been coordinated via the Berlin offices of the Aspen Institute, a private think tank, and are funded by the department's Middle East Partnership Initiative, an effort to promote democracy in Arab countries.
This is the first time that the U.S. government has acknowledged funding Syrian opposition groups. Syria holds legislative elections in March.
Ammar Abdulhamid, a critic of the Syrian government who's based in Washington, said the Berlin meetings have involved opposition groups of all stripes. Another is planned for late January or early February, he said.
Asked about the funding, which was first reported on Time magazine's Web site, State Department spokesman Sean McCormack said it's "no different from any other programs that we have all throughout the rest of the world and especially in the Middle East, promoting those civil society groups who have an interest in greater freedom and democracy in the Middle East."
Other officials say that's not necessarily the case because the funding involves strengthening groups and individuals that favor replacing Assad's regime.
An administration working group, known as the Iran-Syria Operations Group, whose existence is technically classified, has been meeting almost weekly to discuss ways to promote change in Iran and Syria through U.S.-funded broadcasting and other methods. The ISOG and its sub-groups are co-chaired by the White House's National Security Council and the State Department.
Additionally, Bush aides met at the White House in late October with members of a coalition of Syrian opposition groups called the National Salvation Front. That awkward coalition includes secular Syrians who advocate democracy; members of the Muslim Brotherhood, the Middle East's largest Islamist group; and former vice president Abdul Halim Khaddam, once a leading member of the regime.
Rice has made clear that rather than engaging with Iran and Syria, the administration plans to try to reduce their influence. The plan is to bolster a coalition of "mainstream" states, which would include Egypt, Jordan and six Arab nations bordering the Persian Gulf, led by Saudi Arabia. Iran and Syria, which Rice and Bush have repeatedly denounced as destabilizing the region, would be excluded.
Rice, in an interview with McClatchy Newspapers and other news organizations Tuesday, said she plans to encourage the coalition during the rest of her tenure. "I think that's really the diplomacy of the next couple of years, is to try and solidify that alignment in the Middle East," she said.
But while Sunni Arab nations are worried over Shiite Iran's resurgence, they've made clear to Rice that their cooperation is dependent on greater U.S. involvement to solve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. Syria could undermine any such effort in retaliation for U.S. efforts to undermine Syria.
Bush vowed to work with the new Democratic-controlled Congress next year on improving the situation in Iraq and adding more soldiers to the U.S. military.
But some Democrats were skeptical of Bush's comments Wednesday.
"Unfortunately, it is troubling to see that he does not understand the need for urgent change in Iraq," Senate Majority Leader-designate Harry Reid said in a written statement. "The president seems lost within his own rhetoric."
Bush also vowed to work with Democrats to increase the minimum wage by $2.10 over a two-year period, if the increase is coupled with a relaxation of regulations and taxes for small businesses.
And he pledged to try again to get a comprehensive immigration policy that includes a guest worker program.
(c) 2006, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.
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