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Britain's Blair Speaks with Iraq Study Group

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. Good morning. I'm Steve Inskeep.

Gunmen, wearing Iraqi police commando uniforms today, kidnapped about 100 men from a research institute in downtown Baghdad. The victims were both Sunni and Shiite Muslim. In response, Iraq's higher education minister has closed all universities until security has improved.

This latest big kidnapping in Baghdad comes in the midst of a debate over what to do about Iraq. British Prime Minister Tony Blair joined in yesterday. He's challenging Iran and Syria to help stabilize the country. He said that in a speech last night to the annual Lord Mayor's banquet in London. It's the traditional platform for the British prime minister to deliver a speech on world affairs.

As NPR's Rob Gifford reports, this speech is seen as part of a review of Middle East strategy by both Britain and the United States.

ROB GIFFORD: Just as the situation in Iraq is evolving, said Tony Blair in his speech, so our strategy has to evolve to meet it. Blair laid out what he called his whole Middle East strategy, with the possibility of dialogue with Iran and Syria. He was careful to keep a hard edge to the offer. He doesn't want to be accused of going soft on countries he and President Bush still see as being sponsors of terrorism.

But clearly it's part of a new thinking on how to move forward on Iraq.

Prime Minister TONY BLAIR (Britain): We offer Iran a clear strategic choice. They help the Middle East process, not hinder it; they stop supporting terrorism in Lebanon or Iraq; they abide by, not flout, their international obligations. In that case, a new partnership is possible. Or alternatively, they face the consequence of not doing so: isolation.

GIFFORD: Experts and diplomats say it will be difficult for Britain and the U.S. to seek Iranian help with Iraq, at the same time as pushing for U.N. sanctions against Tehran over its nuclear program. British newspapers, this morning, were also skeptical of the offer. Iran and Syria were demonized to justify the invasion of Iraq, reads the front page of The Independent. Now, the article goes on, Britain and the U.S. want their help sorting out the mess.

Tony Blair also pushed for more to be done to solve the conflict between the Israelis and the Palestinians, an appeal that coincided with a visit to the White House by the Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert.

P.M. BLAIR: A whole region policy should start with Israel/Palestine. That is the core. We should then make progress on Lebanon. We should unite all moderate Arab and Muslim voices behind a push for peace in those countries, but also in Iraq. And we should be standing up for, empowering, respecting those with a moderate and modern view of the fate of Islam everywhere.

GIFFORD: Many experts, British and Arab, have welcomed Blair's raising of the issue of dialogue with Syria and Iran. Ghayth Armanazi is director of the Syrian Media Center in London, and a former ambassador of the Arab League to Britain.

Mr. Ghayth Armanazi (Director, Syrian Media Center, London): Syria has been calling for it for a while. I mean it's high time, actually, that Britain and, of course, the United States does make this kind of approach to Syria. The whole idea is to try to bring about some kind of consensus within and without Europe and that could - you know, it's not going to be easy, there will be difficulties ahead - but at least it's a new approach that will serve perhaps more promise.

GIFFORD: Today Tony Blair follows up last night's speech by conferring through a video link with the Iraq study group in Washington. Engaging with Syria and Iran on the issue of Iraq is an idea thought to be favored by some members of the panel. President Bush has in the past, spurned the idea, and yesterday continued to be cool to the prospect of such a dialogue.

Rob Gifford, NPR News, London. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Rob Gifford
Rob Gifford is the NPR foreign correspondent based in Shanghai.
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