By EDITH M. LEDERER and JOHN DANISZEWSKI
UNITED NATIONS (AP) - Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari proposed a two-stage plan Friday to bring both sides of the Syrian conflict together to discuss a political transition in hopes of ending the 18-month war that has killed more than 30,000 people.
Zebari said in an interview with The Associated Press that he made the proposal at a ministerial meeting of 20 countries mainly opposed to the government of President Bashar Assad of Syria. The closed meeting of key members of the so-called Friends of Syria was chaired by U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and Arab League chief Nabil Elaraby.
"The discussions were very good," he said. "I think everyone ... recognized the need for a political transition - no preconditions - not to adopt maximalist positions."
The first stage would be to bring together the countries that endorsed a blueprint leading to a political transition that was adopted in Geneva on June 30 to now focus on implementing its planks, Zebari said.
The second stage would be to invite representatives of the government and the opposition, both inside and outside Syria, to a conference in a neutral country outside the Middle East.
He said that international envoy Lakhdar Brahimi would have to carry the plan forward.
At the Geneva meeting in June, the five veto-wielding members of the U.N. Security Council who are deeply divided over Syria joined with other key countries interested in Syria approved a broad framework that would require both the opposition and the Assad government to agree to a new interim government for the country, leading to elections. The plan also would require Syrian security forces to have the confidence of both sides.
The Geneva meeting was called by Brahimi's predecessor, Kofi Annan, after Russia and China had vetoed two Western-backed resolutions aimed at pressuring Assad to stop fighting and start negotiations. Moscow and Beijing vetoed a third resolution that raised the threat of sanctions against Assad on July 20.
Zebari said the tone of the Friends of Syria meeting on the sidelines of the U.N. General Assembly's annual ministerial session was positive and pragmatic.
"Before it was very difficult to present such ideas," he said. "Really now, everybody is becoming more and more concerned and more realistic." he said.
Zebari said there are many other ideas on the table including military intervention, humanitarian corridors and a no fly zone but he called them "unrealistic" because there is no international support for them.
Asked what kind of support he got from the ministers for his two-stage proposal, Zebari said, "They are seriously looking at it, and it's not outright rejection."
He added that he met with Russian Foreign Minister Sergey Lavrov after Friday's meeting and said he thinks Moscow will support his two-stage proposal.
As a neighbor of Syria, he said, Iraq has adopted a neutral position on the conflict, maintaining relations both with the Assad government and with the opposition.
"We presented our view very clearly that it is important, it is timely, for Brahimi now to plan for a conference in a neutral place ... not in the region, (and) to invite key, credible opposition leaders, representatives from inside, from the exile (community) and representatives of the government," Zebari said.
"Both sides will be held to an acid test in front of the international community to see who is willing to move ahead," he said.
Brahimi, who took over as the joint U.N.-Arab League envoy on Sept. 1, "should be given time," the Iraqi minister said. "He should not be handcuffed with certain conditions for Assad to leave beforehand. ... What is important is to start the political process."
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