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Israeli leader rejects linking Mideast conflict with Iraq issue

TEL AVIV -- Prime Minister Ehud Olmert yesterday rejected a US advisory group's conclusions that Israel must talk to Syria and solve its conflict with the Palestinians to help the Bush administration stabilize Iraq.

Syria is not about to stop supporting Mideast extremists and Iraq is not linked to the Israel-Palestinian issue, Olmert said. Still, he added that Israel wants to restart peace talks with the Palestinians "with all our might."

Elsewhere in the Middle East, many Arabs interpreted the panel's bleak assessment of President Bush's Iraq policies as proof of Washington's failure in the region, and some warned the report could fuel insurgents and others vying to fill Iraq's security vacuum.

"This report is a recognition of the limitation of American power," said Abdel Moneim Said, head of Al-Ahram Center for Political and Strategic studies in Cairo. "In the short term, America will highly suffer the loss of its reputation and credibility in the region."

The bipartisan study, written under the leadership of former secretary of state James A. Baker III and former US representative Lee Hamilton, painted a dire picture of the situation in Iraq.

The report suggested the United States should find ways to pull back most of its combat forces by early 2008 and focus US troops on training and supporting Iraqi units. The United States also should begin a "diplomatic offensive" and engage adversaries Iran and Syria in an effort to quell sectarian violence and shore up the Iraqi government, the report said.

It also called for direct talks between Israel, Syria, Lebanon, and the Palestinians, and portrayed the Israeli-Palestinian conflict as a key element of failed efforts to achieve stability and rein in extremism in the Middle East.

Olmert rejected that assessment. "The attempt to create a linkage between the Iraqi issue and the Mideast issue -- we have a different view," the Israeli leader said. "To the best of my knowledge, President Bush, throughout the recent years, also had a different view on this."

Answering reporters' questions for more than an hour yesterday, Olmert said conditions were not ripe to reopen long-dormant talks with Syria and added that he received no indications from Bush that the United States would push Israel to start such talks.

In Damascus, a Syrian Foreign Ministry official praised the report's emphasis on the need to settle the Arab-Israeli conflict and made clear what his government would want from the United States in return for help in trying to reduce violence in Iraq.

"The Syrian priority is to fully recover the occupied Arab Syrian Golan Heights," the official Syrian Arab News Agency quoted the unidentified official as saying.

President Bashar Assad of Syria has called in recent months for a new round of talks with Israel. Syria is a key backer of the Palestinian militant group Hamas and Hezbollah, the Lebanese guerrilla group that battled Israel for a month last summer.

But Olmert said Syria's attempts to subvert Lebanon's government and support for Hamas "doesn't create the conditions for negotiations with the Syrians in the near future." He said Israel and the West have been trying for years to separate Syria from Mideast radicals "to no avail."

Palestinian officials were more receptive. "We welcome the Hamilton-Baker report and hope the US administration will translate it into deeds," Palestinian negotiator Saeb Erekat said. "The region needs peace, the region needs dialogue, and we have always stuck to dialogue toward a comprehensive peace."

Iran's Foreign Minister Manouchehr Mottaki said his government would look at the report, but that Washington needed to change its Iraq policies before any dialogue with Tehran.

"The main important thing is the Americans decide to leave Iraq," Mottaki said during a visit to the Netherlands.

 Bush faults panel ideas, calls victory in Iraq vital (By Farah Stockman, Globe Staff)
 BUSH / BLAIR EXCERPTS: 'The question is, how do we find the right way forward?' ()
 Private Saudis said to fund Iraq insurgents (By Salah Nasrawi, Associated Press)
 Bombings and shootings kill at least 23 in Iraq (By Thomas Wagner, Associated Press)
 SCOT LEHIGH: What will Congress do?
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