British Prime Minister Tony Blair urged the international community yesterday to engage Iran and Syria to advance the peace process in the Middle East and defended his government's close relationship with the US.
Blair said the outcome of the Iraq War was central to bringing peace to the Middle East, and the world must make clear to Syria and Iran how they can assist in the process as well as the consequences of hindering it.
The US has said it was willing to hold direct talks with Iran about Iraq -- which would be the most public exchange between the countries in years. But the US does not want to discuss broader subjects such as Iran's nuclear program, which Washington suspects is aimed at making weapons.
US President George W. Bush's chief of staff, Josh Bolten, said on Sunday that the White House would consider US talks with Syria and Iran if the bipartisan Iraq Study Group, which is trying to develop a new course for the war, recommended that.
The US and other Western nations have isolated Syria for more than a year. Washington wants Syria to stop its backing of Hezbollah in Lebanon, end support of Palestinian militants and help crack down on insurgents crossing the border into Iraq.
Blair's address to the annual Lord Mayor's banquet in London comes a day before he was scheduled to speak by video link to the Iraq Study Group, a bipartisan Washington commission trying to devise a new course for the war in Iraq. Blair has been Bush's staunchest ally in that war, a position that has cost him support at home.
Blair said forging bonds with nations that share Britain's values is necessary for future security and the best foreign policy to pursue is one built on strong alliances.
"Our partnership with America and our membership of the [EU] are precisely suited to Britain," he said. "For that reason anti-Americanism or Euro-skepticism are not merely foolish -- they are the surest route to the destruction of our true national interest."
"When people say, `Yes, but we want a British foreign policy,' I say: `Of course we do, but in today's world a foreign policy based on strong alliances is the only British policy which works,'" he said.
Britain has sent more troops to Iraq than any nation besides the US, and rising violence there -- and a British death toll that on Sunday reached 125 -- have heightened calls for a change of strategy.
Britain's Ministry of Defense said on Sunday that four British servicemen were killed in an attack on a patrol boat in Basra's Shatt al-Arab waterway in southern Iraq. Three servicemen were wounded, the ministry said.
Blair has said British troops will remain in Iraq until Iraqi forces can take responsibility for security.