American Foes Step into the Iraq Fray ; Iran and Syria, Long Accused of Enabling the Violence in Iraq, Are Showing New Interest in Finding an End to the Disorder

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This week, Iraq has drawn decisively closer to the two countries the US alleges are the greatest threats to peace and stability in the Middle East.

Tuesday, Syria restored diplomatic ties with Iraq that were broken by Saddam Hussein in 1980 back when Iraq was fighting Iran. Also Tuesday, Iraqi President Jalal Talabani's office said he would travel to Tehran this weekend to meet with Iranian President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad to talk about restoring order to Iraq.

The US has repeatedly accused Iran and Syria of stirring up violence inside Iraq, but recently the notion of isolating them as punishment has lost favor in Washington. A growing number President Bush's advisers are urging direct dialogue with both nations. They argue that engagement could convince Syria to do more to prevent foreign fighters from entering Iraq; Iran could exert more influence on Iraq's dominant Shiite political parties (and their militias) to compromise more.

"It could make a difference, but not a critical difference,'' says Anthony Cordesman, former director of intelligence assessment to the US Secretary of Defense and now a senior fellow at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington.

Iran has been accused of being deeply involved in training, funding, and arming the two major Shiite militias in Iraq, where Tehran has historic ties to the current Shiite political leadership. Many Iraqi Shiites spent years in Iranian exile during Mr. Hussein's decades in power in Baghdad. One militia, the Badr Brigade, was trained in Iran by the Revolutionary Guard.

"While of course it's worth talking to them, even if they complied with all our wishes, what they could do probably would not be decisive,'' says Wayne White, former head of the Middle East desk at the State Department's Bureau of Intelligence and Research.

"The situation is so bad now in Iraq," he says, "you can't expect any magic over there. And even if you could get the Iranians and Syrians to accomplish things you wanted, what would you have to cough up in return?"

Former US Secretary of State James Baker, who served under President Bush's father and is now the leader of the Iraq Study Group (ISG) advising the president on new directions for his Iraq policy, has been quietly meeting with Syrian officials in the US, according to an interview with the Syrian ambassador to the US reported by The New York Times. He also met with Iran's ambassador to the United Nations.

British Prime Minister Tony Blair has publicly called for more direct engagement, and members of the ISG have been quietly urging more direct ties with Iran, as well. …