Democratic 2008 hopeful Barack Obama Tuesday called for talks with Iran on stabilizing Iraq, hours after the top US war general said Tehran was the greatest threat to democracy in the war-torn nation.
Obama also suggested the best the United States may now be able to achieve in Iraq was a "messy, sloppy status quo" and argued the Bush administration's goals for Iraq would require a US troop commitment for up to 30 years.
The Illinois senator, battling Hillary Clinton for the Democratic presidential nomination, told war commander General David Petraeus and US ambassador to Baghdad Ryan Crocker that a "diplomatic surge" was needed "that includes Iran."
"Because if (Iraqi prime minister Nuri al-Maliki) can tolerate normal neighbor-to-neighbor relations in Iran, then we should be talking to them as well," Obama said in a crucial Senate Foreign Relations committee hearing.
"I do not believe we're going to be able to stabilize the situation without them."
Earlier, Petraeus had told the Senate Armed Services committee that Iran was playing a "destructive role" in Iraq and blamed it for a flare-up of violence in Baghdad and Basra and for training, arming and funding militants he called "special groups."
"Unchecked, the special groups pose the greatest long-term threat to the viability of a democratic Iraq," he said.
Crocker charged that Iran was pursuing a "Lebanization strategy," co-opting elements of the local Shia community to use as instruments of Iranian force.
Obama, leading Clinton in nominating contests won and elected delegates ahead of their next primary showdown in Pennsylvania on April 22, also hinted at his approach to Iraq, should he become president.
He complained that the Bush administration's "definition of success is so high," including eradicating Al-Qaeda and establishing a Democratic multi-ethnic, multi-sectarian functioning democracy with no Iranian influence, that US troops could be in Iraq for "twenty or thirty years."
"If, on the other hand, our criteria is a messy, sloppy status quo but there's not, you know, huge outbreaks of violence, there's still corruption, but the country is struggling along, but it's not a threat to its neighbors and it's not an Al-Qaeda base, that seems to me an achievable goal within a measurable timeframe," Obama said.
He also called for more pressure on the Iraqi government to embrace political reconciliation and the establishment of a US troop withdrawal plan to force Iraqi factions to work together.
"I think that increased pressure in a measured way ... includes a timetable for withdrawal. Nobody is asking for a precipitous withdrawal."
Obama has taken fire from Clinton and Republican presumptive nominee John McCain for his offer to talk, if elected president, with the leaders of several US foes including Iran.
He used his question period during the crucial Senate hearing to restate his initial opposition to the war in Iraq, which Clinton voted to authorize.
"We all have the greatest interest in seeing a successful resolution to Iraq," Obama told Petraeus and Crocker.
"I continue to believe that the original decision to go into Iraq was a massive strategic blunder, that the two problems you pointed out, Al-Qaeda in Iraq and increased Iranian influence in the region, are a direct result of that original decision.
"That's not a decision you gentlemen made. I will not lay it at your feet. You are cleaning up the mess afterwards."
No talks between the United States and Iran have been held so far this year amid continued tension over Iran's role in its conflict-torn neighbor.
An Iranian delegation traveled to Baghdad in March in expectation of a new round of talks that never took place. Iran said the United States canceled the talks at the last minute, but US officials said the date was never set.
Iran and the United States held three rounds of talks about Iraq last year despite mounting tensions over Tehran's nuclear program. The two foes have had no official diplomatic relations since 1980.
Crocker and his Iranian counterpart Hassan Kazemi Qomi held face-to-face talks in May and July last year, the highest level of public contacts between the two sides for 27 years.
Officials from both countries also met at the experts' level last August, but there has been no meeting since.
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