US enlists other nations in efforts to steer Iraqi government

The US cohosts a European conference Wednesday that could influence Iraq's emerging political landscape.

International conferences are often dismissed as gabfests with little impact, and the Bush administration has rarely looked on them favorably.

But the US attitude toward the international conference on Iraq set for this European capital Wednesday is different. The US believes the international community - and most notably the United Nations and the Europeans - can help influence Iraq's interim government at a crucial moment in that country's new formation.

The conference will highlight reconstruction, political reform, and the rule of law. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, who has been touting the gathering of more than 80 countries and international organizationswith an unusual level of emphasis, will head the US delegation.

In the margins of the official agenda, the US will be looking for pressure from international players to encourage Iraq's new leaders to be more pluralistic and inclusive of all minorities and political groups. The US sees a broad international consensus on this issue as crucial as Iraq faces an Aug. 15 deadline for completing a constitution and as some leaders - primarily in the dominant Shiite population - show signs of impatience with minority demands.

"Broader international involvement with Iraq's interim government could lead to a wider circle of political participation," says Larry Diamond, an Iraq expert at the Stanford Institute of International Studies. "And getting the UN more involved is extremely important because it can play a decisive role with the Sunni communities."

At the same time, some regional policy experts are hoping the US uses the opportunity of the conference to undertake some of its own diplomacy in the margins - primarily with such crucial Iraqi neighbors as Syria and Iran. Both nations have poor to nonexistent relations with the US.

"Large gatherings like this can provide opportunities for smaller informal meetings with countries with decisive influence, and to the extent the US uses this [conference] in that way it has a potential to be very helpful," says James Dobbins, who worked with both the Clinton administration on Bosnia and the Bush administration on Afghanistan.

Iran has extensive political influence with a number of Iraq's Shiite leaders including Prime Minister Ibrahim al- Jaafari. But the question of Syria has taken on increased urgency as the Pentagon has determined that a growing share of the Iraq insurgency is composed of foreign fighters. Many of those are thought to be entering Iraq across the Syrian border.

The foreign fighters, often called jihadists because of their mission of fighting an Islamic holy war in Iraq, are considered the most troublesome segment of an insurgency the US estimates at between 10,000 to 20,000 strong. The US believes the jihadists are the most violent insurgents and are completely uninterested in any negotiable settlement.

Secretary of State Rice, on an extensive swing through the Middle East before arriving in Brussels, was expected to take up the problem of foreign fighters when she met with Saudi officials. A substantial number of arrested fighters are turning out to be Saudis, many of whom enter Iraq through Syria.

But not all experts are optimistic that informal contacts with Syrian officials could make a difference. "Syria is a police state with such an intelligence apparatus that it can't possibly not know about these infiltrations across the border," says Mr. Diamond, a democratization expert who worked with the US government in Baghdad in 2004. "But it is also a rogue state that is showing little interest in appeals for cooperation."

Still, Mr. Dobbins says his experience suggests that even countries in poor straits with the US can be enlisted to help with neighbors - especially when third parties are involved in the initial talks. He points to a 2002 meeting in the office of UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan focused on Afghanistan and involving a small group including the US, Russia, and Iran.

"All that appeared to come out of that meeting was an unremarkable communiqué with nothing dramatic," says Dobbins, who now works as a security expert with the Rand Corporation. "But the consequential result was that [then Secretary of State Colin] Powell authorized low-level contacts with the Iranians, any time, any place, so long as the topic focused on stability in Afghanistan. And that was instrumental in our ability to usher in a successor government to the Taliban."

A number of diplomats say their countries are taking the fact the US is co-hosting the Iraq conference with the European Union as a positive sign that the days of a US that is sure of its path in Iraq and dismissive of outside help are over.

One diplomat who sat in on a recent meeting betweenGerman Foreign Minister Joschka Fischer and National Security Adviser Stephen Hadley was amazed - and heartened - when Mr. Hadley asked the German what Germany would do in a case like Iraq.

"We aren't so used to this administration asking for advice," the diplomat says.

The conference may prove helpful to the US project in Iraq, but organizers are hoping the biggest impact will be with the Iraqis. Experts with diplomatic experience say getting a diverse contingent of a country's leaders out of the "hothouse" of their domestic affairs and appearing together on the international stage can foster a sense of unity.

"Sometimes there's nothing like getting people from different groups facing the outside world to create a bonding," says former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright. Referring to her experience in the 1990s with the Balkans, she adds, "If they do bond, that can be important to get people acting."

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