Iraq Meeting May Lead to U.S.-Iran Talks
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice could soon be sitting across a table from her counterparts in Iran and Syria.
Rice told a congressional hearing Tuesday that senior U.S. officials will join a roundtable that will include representatives from Iran and Syria to talk about how to stabilize Iraq.
It seems like an about face from the Bush administration, which has long resisted the idea of engaging the Iranians on the issue.
The surprise announcement actually came about five minutes into Rice's opening statement to the Senate Appropriations Committee. She had rattled off a list of reasons why she thought Congress ought to send another $100 billion to fund the conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan.
Then came a muted bombshell:
"I would like to take one moment to talk about our diplomatic offensive," she said.
The announcement she wanted to make was that in two weeks, the United States will join Iran at a round-table meeting in Iraq to talk about regional stability.
"I would note that the Iraqi government has invited all of its neighbors, including Syria and Iran, to attend both of these regional meetings," Rice said. "We hope that all governments will seize this opportunity to improve their relations with Iraq and to work for peace and stability in the region."
This is the same Iran that President Bush once dubbed as part of "an axis of evil" that included Iraq and North Korea.
And less than two weeks ago, the president had this to say about any possible dialogue with Iran:
"And we've made it very clear to the Iranians that if they would like to have a dialogue with the United States, there needs to be a verifiable suspension of their program."
He was referring to Iran's nuclear program.
Over the past few months, the Bush administration has ratcheted up the rhetoric over Iran. And all the tough talk has jolted many members of Congress. There's even talk on Capitol Hill of introducing legislation to prohibit any attack on Iran without congressional approval.
At Tuesday's hearing, the chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee, Sen. Robert Byrd of West Virginia, raised the issue with General Peter Pace, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.
"There have been a number of reports that the U.S. is preparing to launch airstrikes against Iran," Byrd noted. "Is that true?"
Pace said those reports are "categorically" untrue.
Pace, Rice and Gates were actually on Capitol Hill to ask for more money — about $100 billion to fund the Iraq and Afghan campaigns through the end of 2007. The "supplemental" request is on top of the $70 billion Congress allocated to those wars late last year.
That might explain Sen. Patrick Leahy's somewhat annoyed tone as he addressed Gates.
"How long?" the Vermont Democrat asked. "how much money? How many open-ended supplementals? How long are we gonna have to do that?"
"Senator, the honest answer to your question is I do not know," Pace said.
These days, about 4 percent of the U.S. gross domestic product goes toward defense spending — close to half a trillion dollars a year.
Number crunchers at the Congressional Budget Office are predicting that number will rise by as much as a full percentage point in the coming year.
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