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Exiting Iraq with 'help' from Iran

The Nov. 7 US elections sent a clear message: America must depart Iraq sooner, not later. While Democrats in Congress gin up to make it happen, the Middle East is prepping for a power vacuum. And guess who appears first in line to fill it: Iran.

In fact, simply extracting US and British troops safely from Iraq will take a lenient attitude from the radical Islamic regime next door. Iran has a hand in troublemaking Shiite militias in Iraq, which also gives it influence over who will rule Iraq in the postoccupation era.

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Iran's rising power in the face of a coming US retreat is why the White House is now receiving advice from many corners about how to deal with Tehran. President Bush should consider a fresh approach.

The one nation in Iran's cross hairs for destruction, Israel, gave its advice Monday. In a visit to the White House, Prime Minister Ehud Olmert tried to make sure the US would remain tough on Iran and not negotiate in a way that would result in US pressure on Israel to concede on Palestinian and Arab demands.

Mr. Bush seemed to agree. But Mr. Olmert went further to say that the US presence in Iraq has brought stability to the region – implying it shouldn't leave anytime soon.

Also on Monday, another close US ally, British Prime Minister Tony Blair, called for a new strategy: "Offer Iran a clear strategic choice: they help the [Middle East peace process], not hinder it; they stop supporting terrorism in Lebanon or Iraq; and they abide by, not flout, their international obligations. In that case, a new partnership is possible."

His message, while tough on Iran, seems to suggest keeping a door open to that country, despite current US efforts to slap United Nations sanctions on Iran for its uranium enrichment.

If Bush heeds any advice, it may be from the bipartisan Iraq Study Group. Its report, due next month, might suggest that the US work with both Iran and Syria to leave behind a stable Iraq. The price for such "help" may need to be US pressure on Israel to create a viable Palestinian state as well as make concessions to Syria in Lebanon or over the issue of the Golan Heights.

The US can't jeopardize Israel's security in such a scenario. But then again, Israel cannot damage US interests in the region by clinging to Jewish settlements in the West Bank or its hold on the Golan Heights, taken from Syria.

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In a September speech, an aide to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice said progress in Arab-Israeli disputes is necessary if the US is to win support from Arab states in dealing with Iran. That hints of a new strategy that must deal with multiple US interests: Leaving behind a secure Iraq, fostering democracy in the region to counter terrorist tendencies, ending Iran's nuclear ambitions, and protecting Israel.

If ever the US needed a bipartisan and calm debate on Middle East policy, the time is now for Bush and a Democratic Congress to work together toward those goals.

The postelection mood for retreat in Iraq should not be read as a call for a US retreat from the Middle East. Engaging Iran will not be easy, if it is done at all. Democrats and Republicans must be on the same page if Iran's nuclear and terrorist threat is to be held in check.