Sunday, February 18, 2007

Hagel cheers word of Middle East diplomatic plans

Published Sunday February 18, 2007

Hagel cheers word of Middle East diplomatic plans


WASHINGTON - The Bush administration is poised to start new diplomatic initiatives in the Middle East, including encouraging a regional security conference that might include Syria and Iran, Sen. Chuck Hagel of Nebraska said Saturday.

If so, the outreach could add a new element of diplomacy to the region and to ongoing military efforts to quell violence in Iraq, Hagel said in an interview.

Hagel said he and Stephen Hadley, President Bush's national security adviser, discussed Iraq, Iran, North Korea and the Middle East on Saturday.

"I believe the administration is moving in a new positive direction to help and start initiating some new diplomatic efforts in the Middle East," Hagel said. "They can count on my support on this if they start to do some things."

A senior Republican on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Hagel said he believes the administration may be thawing a bit in its hard-line stance against Iran and Syria.

"Yes, absolutely," Hagel said.

The administration has argued against reaching out diplomatically to the two countries because of their ties to terrorist organizations.

In addition, Iran has apparently been moving toward possible development of nuclear weapons, despite strong condemnation by the Bush administration and U.S. allies.

Hagel has long advocated a U.S. role in trying to organize a regional security conference to try to bring stability to Iraq and to move the Middle East peace process forward.

If they meet, the various nations could consider playing roles in promoting jobs, security, deterring terrorism and resolution of the ethnic and religious differences now plaguing Iraq, Hagel said.

The United States shouldn't be in charge of the conference but should try orchestrating a meeting among the other nations, he said.

Such a conference might help defuse growing tensions between Sunni and Shiite Muslims in the Middle East outside Iraq, he said.

"It takes a lot of pressure off the administration if they can start some of these initiatives," Hagel said, adding he told Hadley, "Tell the president I'll be right with him on it as I have been on India, as I have on trade and so many of his diplomatic initiatives."

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