"US and Iraqi negotiators have abandoned efforts to conclude a comprehensive agreement governing the long-term status of US troops in Iraq before the end of the Bush presidency, according to senior US officials, effectively leaving talks over an extended US military presence there to the next administration," The Washington Post reported. "In place of the formal status-of-forces agreement negotiators had hoped to complete by July 31, the two governments are now working on a 'bridge' document, more limited in both time and scope, that would allow basic US military operations to continue beyond the expiration of a UN mandate at the end of the year. "The failure of months of negotiations over the more detailed accord - blamed on both the Iraqi refusal to accept US terms and the complexity of the task - deals a blow to the Bush administration's plans to leave in place a formal military architecture in Iraq that could last for years. "Although President Bush has repeatedly rejected calls for a troop withdrawal timeline, 'we are talking about dates,' acknowledged one US official close to the negotiations. Iraqi political leaders 'are all telling us the same thing. They need something like this in there... Iraqis want to know that foreign troops are not going to be here forever'." The Sunday Times reported that if the Iraqi government gets its way, the Green Zone in Baghdad may soon be handed over to Iraqi control. "A senior Iraqi government official said this weekend the enclave should revert to Iraqi control by the end of the year. 'We think that by the end of 2008 all the zones in Baghdad should be integrated into the city,' said Ali Dabbagh, the government's spokesman. "'The American soldiers should be based in agreed camps outside the cities and population areas. "'By the end of the year, there will be no green zone,' he added. 'The separation by huge walls makes people feel angry.' Dabbagh acknowledged that getting rid of the Green Zone would be a huge undertaking, given the thousands of American soldiers, private contractors and foreign workers who live inside. He said the concrete walls that divide it from the rest of the city would be taken down slowly, 'depending on the threat and circumstances'." The New York Times said: "The Bush administration is considering the withdrawal of additional combat forces from Iraq beginning in September, according to administration and military officials, raising the prospect of a far more ambitious plan than expected only months ago. "Such a withdrawal would be a striking reversal from the nadir of the war in 2006 and 2007. "One factor in the consideration is the pressing need for additional American troops in Afghanistan, where the Taliban and other fighters have intensified their insurgency and inflicted a growing number of casualties on Afghans and American-led forces there... "Any troop reductions announced in the heat of the presidential election could blur the sharp differences between the candidates, Senators John McCain and Barack Obama, over how long to stay in Iraq. But the political benefit might go more to Mr McCain than Mr Obama. Mr McCain is an avid supporter of the current strategy in Iraq. Any reduction would indicate that that strategy has worked and could defuse antiwar sentiment among voters. The Sunday Times added: "Later this month, under conditions of extreme security, Barack Obama will jet into Baghdad for policy discussions with America's most popular general that could change the course of US involvement in Iraq. "The long-awaited meeting with General David Petraeus, commander of coalition forces in Iraq, is likely to prove the most dangerous encounter - politically and personally - of a week-long world tour that will carry the Democratic presidential candidate from high-profile meetings in London, Paris, Rome and Berlin to the military bases of Afghanistan and Iraq. "The candidate and the general have for months seemed at loggerheads over troop levels in Iraq, with Obama committed to a rapid withdrawal over the next 18 months and Petraeus arguing that a premature pull-out might endanger the success of the US military 'surge' that has produced a sharp drop in violence this year." Meanwhile, The New York Times reported: "Taliban insurgents mounted a large-scale attack on an American forward operating base in eastern Afghanistan in the early hours of Sunday, killing nine American soldiers in fierce fighting that continued through the day. "Mark Laity, a spokesman for Nato, confirmed that nine soldiers had been killed and 15 more wounded, but did not give their nationality. Separately, a senior American military official confirmed that the nine soldiers killed were Americans. Four Afghan soldiers also were wounded, Mr Laity said. "The Taliban assault on the base was the deadliest single attack on the Nato security force in Afghanistan, known as ISAF, in several years." Newly-formed Union for the Mediterranean provides a diplomatic stage for Syria "Leaders of 43 nations with nearly 800 million inhabitants inaugurated a new Union for the Mediterranean on Sunday, designed to bring the northern and southern countries that ring the sea closer together through practical projects dealing with the environment, climate, transportation, immigration and policing," the International Herald Tribune reported. "But the meeting was also an opportunity for President Nicolas Sarkozy of France to exercise some highly public Middle East diplomacy, bringing President Bashir al-Assad of Syria out of isolation for a controversial ElysÈe Palace meeting and hosting a session between Prime Minister Ehud Olmert of Israel and the Palestinian president, Mahmoud Abbas. "The Union for the Mediterranean is Sarkozy's brainchild, but his original conception was watered down to include all members of the European Union. Nor does the new union have any political conditions for membership, sharply reducing the possibility of influencing policy changes or promoting more respect for human rights among the governments represented here." Reuters said: "Sarkozy showered Assad with praise for helping resolve Lebanon's political crisis for now, a policy that in any case was to Syria's advantage, and for starting indirect peace talks with Israel. "The French president also sought Assad's help in using his good relations with Iran to resolve the stand-off over Tehran's nuclear ambitions, and with Palestinian Hamas militants to secure the release of a captured Israeli soldier in Gaza. "So are things finally looking up for Syria? "'This is a real win-win for Syria,' said one EU diplomat, speaking on condition of anonymity. "'Syria was the only country in the region with whom the EU didn't have a partnership agreement - and now it is the one that gets the special treatment.'" Alain Gresh, deputy director of Le Monde diplomatique, after interviewing Mr Assad, wrote in The Guardian: "He thinks that if there is no political dialogue and peace between Arabs and Israelis, the region will move towards conservatism and extremism. Terrorism, he said, is a state of mind and has no borders: Syria now has homegrown al Qa'eda terrorism, not related to the organisation but to a state of mind. If peace is not achieved, all the reforms the Arabs need (economic development, education, culture) will fail to come about and the whole region will be destabilised. "When the United States and Israel dismiss the idea that Syria really wants peace, they forget this real concern. The Syrian leadership knows that if the chance of peace is lost again, a new channel will open up for the extremists. Syria's indirect negotiations with Israel are within this context. After 2003, Assad stated more often the need to restart negotiations with Israel. After the 2006 war in Lebanon, he clearly distanced himself from the statements of Iran's president, Mahmoud Ahmadinejad: 'I do not say that Israel should be removed from the map. We want peace, peace with Israel,' he told an interviewer for Der Spiegel, September 24 2006. "Ariel Sharon, and then Ehud Olmert, were deaf to these wishes, and others (particularly in Washington) refused to trust Assad's regime. In May, however, Israel and Syria announced the opening of indirect negotiations, with the Turkish prime minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan as intermediary." AFP reported that Mr Assad said that Syria: "would establish 'normal' relations including the opening of embassies if a peace accord was sealed with Israel, in an interview broadcast on Sunday. "'From the very start of the peace process, we have been speaking of normal relations' with the Jewish state as part of a peace deal, he told the Arab satellite channel Al-Jazeera. "'Whether it's called normal relations or a normalisation makes little difference. These are normal relations, just like any relations between two states with embassies, links and treaties,' said Assad." AFP also said: "Lebanon and Syria have agreed to establish diplomatic relations, opening embassies in each others' capitals for the first time since their independence from colonial rule. "French President Nicolas Sarkozy announced the landmark decision Saturday following talks with Syrian President Bashar al-Assad and Lebanese President Michel Sleiman, whose election in May ended a drawn-out political crisis in Lebanon. "'For France, this is historic progress,' Sarkozy told a press conference." Pakistan rejects foreign military intervention in the search for bin Laden "Pakistan's top diplomat said Saturday there are no US or other foreign military personnel on the hunt for Osama bin Laden in his nation, and none will be allowed in to search for the al Qa'eda leader. "In an interview with The Associated Press, Pakistani Foreign Minister Shah Mahmood Qureshi said his nation's new government has ruled out such military operations, covert or otherwise, to catch militants. "'Our government's policy is that our troops, paramilitary forces and our regular forces are deployed in sufficient numbers. They are capable of taking action there. And any foreign intrusion would be counterproductive,' he said Saturday. 'People will not accept it. Questions of sovereignty come in.'" In The New York Times, Nicholas Kristof wrote: "Since 9/11, Westerners have tried two approaches to fight terrorism in Pakistan, President Bush's and Greg Mortenson's. "Mr Bush has focused on military force and provided more than $10 billion - an extraordinary sum in the foreign-aid world - to the highly unpopular government of President Pervez Musharraf. This approach has failed: the backlash has radicalised Pakistan's tribal areas so that they now nurture terrorists in ways that they never did before 9/11. "Mr Mortenson, a frumpy, genial man from Montana, takes a diametrically opposite approach, and he has spent less than one-ten-thousandth as much as the Bush administration. He builds schools in isolated parts of Pakistan and Afghanistan, working closely with Muslim clerics and even praying with them at times. "The only thing that Mr Mortenson blows up are boulders that fall onto remote roads and block access to his schools."