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Bush administration to join Iraqi-led talks attended by Iran, Syria

WASHINGTON—In a softening of its refusal to pursue direct diplomacy with two Middle East adversaries, the Bush administration announced Tuesday that it will participate in a series of international meetings on Iraq that will include representatives of Iran and Syria.

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice announced the talks with Iraq and its neighbors as a "a new diplomatic offensive." She said she hoped that Iran and Syria would "seize the opportunity to improve their relations with Iraq—and to work for peace and stability in the region."

But her announcement at a hearing of the Senate Appropriations Committee—amid signs that the Iraqi army has failed to send the troops it promised to Baghdad—appeared to fall short of calls from Congress and the bipartisan Iraq Study Group to open direct negotiations with Tehran and Damascus.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., called the talks a "first step," but said, "It is not enough on its own."

The White House has accused Tehran of developing nuclear weapons, Damascus of trying to undermine Lebanon's government, and both governments of aiding anti-American forces in Iraq. Until now, it had refused high-level talks with either country.

The first meeting is due to take place during the first half of March in Baghdad, hosted by the Iraqi government, and a second, in which Rice herself might participate, is tentatively set for April.

Meanwhile, top U.S. intelligence officials disclosed that the deployment of Iraqi forces into Baghdad under President Bush's new plan to stabilize Iraq is running behind schedule and that all of the units sent so far have arrived under strength, some by more than half.

Top military officials, speaking at the same hearing with Rice, gave a mixed review on the early implementation of the plan, which is aimed at ending carnage in the capital between Shiites and Sunni Muslims.

Gen. Peter Pace, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, said the Iraqi military was "good for the most part," but uneven. "The Iraqi military is coming on very well," he said, adding that the soldiers should be able to replace U.S. troops by late 2007. "We should have significant turnover this year," he said.

Defense Secretary Robert Gates testified that the Pentagon would send Congress a confidential report on the Iraqi military later this week. "I am watching to see how the Iraqis perform," he said. "So far, so good."

The plan, which Bush announced last month, calls for the deployment of an extra 17,500 American troops to Baghdad, along with thousands of additional Iraqi security forces. The Iraqis are to play the leading role in suppressing the violence and ending forced evictions, most of which are against minority Sunnis by militias linked to Shiite parties in the U.S.-backed coalition government.

But retired Vice Adm. John McConnell, the director of national intelligence, and Army Lt. Gen. Michael Maples, the head of the Defense Intelligence Agency, told the Senate Armed Services Committee in a separate hearing that the Iraqi army sent to Baghdad only two of the three additional brigades that were to have been in place by Feb. 15.

An Iraqi brigade is supposed to have 3,200 men.

"One of the problems was having fully manned units when they arrived in Baghdad," McConnell said. "A work in progress is how best to describe it. It's not there yet."

It was McConnell's first time testifying before a congressional committee since he became the nation's top intelligence officer on Feb. 13.

Maples, the military's top intelligence official, said that the strength of the Iraqi battalions that comprise the two brigades range from 43 percent to 82 percent.

The numbers were the most concise manpower figures that the U.S. military has given for the additional Iraqi units sent to Baghdad.

McConnell said one reason for the Iraqi shortfalls is that typically 25 percent of an Iraqi army unit is away on leave or on some other assignment. But U.S. and Iraqi officials also have cited high desertion rates as a serious problem.

On the positive side, McConnell said that Iraqi forces have begun taking leading roles in some parts of Baghdad, although he didn't specify which areas.

Maples said that the new Iraqi commander for Baghdad, Gen. Abboud Gambar, a Shiite, is "taking charge. He's been very active. And he is apparently demonstrating a very level approach to his command. That is, he is not showing a sectarian bias."

Moreover, he said, U.S. commanders and U.S. trainers embedded with the Iraqi troops have assessed the troops as "capable."

On the negative side, Maples said that two of the extra Iraqi brigades comprise members of the ethnic Kurdish minority, who don't know the city and are divided from Arabs by language, culture and decades of enmity.

McConnell said that while progress has been made in training and equipping the Iraqi army, "they're still not where we need them to be."

Several lawmakers expressed deep concern over the prospects for success for Bush's plan, including Sen. John Warner, R-Va.

"I do not see evidence, strong evidence, that the Iraqi forces are measuring up in any amount to what the president laid down," he said.

The new diplomatic steps evoked skepticism from both sides of the aisle as well. Reid said in a statement that the decision to begin talks with Iran and Syria "should have been made long ago."

"Today's announcement is a first step, but it is not enough on its own. Our national security requires a robust diplomatic effort in the Middle East, and the Bush administration cannot again settle for mere half measures," he said.

Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn., said Bush shouldn't have taken so long to organize a diplomatic push.

"I think he missed an opportunity ... to increase popular support for a long-term U.S. interest in Iraq."

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(c) 2007, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

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