Mideast leaders seek their own solutions for region

Over the past week, power brokers in Israel, Jordan, Saudi Arabia, and Iraq have engaged in talks to resolve conflicts.

For many of the Middle East's leaders, the upshot of the swirling American debate over Iraq is that when, as seems likely, the US withdraws it will leave behind an ongoing war.

So the region's powers – US allies Jordan, Israel, and Saudi Arabia, and its foes Syria and Iran – are engaging in new diplomatic efforts, largely aimed at preventing Iraq's fighting from causing broader turmoil.

While in some cases the talks are only tangentially about Iraq, this high-level dialogue appears to reflect a new reality: With US prestige crippled by the war, regional actors are bypassing the West to forge partnerships and find solutions on their own.

Thursday, Jordan's King Abdullah II, who has recently been more vocal about restarting Arab-Israeli negotiations, invited Palestinian rivals Hamas and Fatah, locked in deadly street battles this past week, to hash out their differences in Jordan on Sunday.

In Beirut, Arab League negotiator Amr Moussa seems to be making some progress at ending the political crisis between the country's ruling coalition and the Shiite militant party Hizbullah.

But in all cases, Iraq is the volatile backdrop, specifically its potential to become a proxy arena for the region's problems.

A good example is Israel. Watching the unfolding tragedy in Iraq and with its own war this summer against the Shiite militants of Hizbullah in mind, it's reaching out to the Jordanians, the Saudis, and the Lebanese to find solutions to its own security problems.

"In the late 1990s, Israel's worldview was that 'we are the military superpower in the region and we are very closely allied with the world's only superpower. So we have very little to worry about,' " says Gidi Grinstein, a former peace negotiator for the Israeli government and now president of the Reut Institute, a Tel Aviv think tank.

Now, he says, "you have America in a situation of very serious overstretch, unable to get a decisive victory across the region ... we have to look for new partners, alliances, and means of cooperation."

Before Sunday's meeting between Fatah and Hamas was announced, Israeli Prime Minister Ehud Olmert flew to Jordan Tuesday to talk with Abdullah about reviving failed peace talks with the Palestinians.

Diplomatic activity is also swirling in Lebanon, where a domestic squabble over the country's sectarian power-sharing arrangement, also draws together the competing interests of the Sunni Arab powers of the region on the one side, and Shiite Iran, on the other.

Arab League Secretary General Amr Moussa, a former Egyptian foreign minister, returned to Beirut Wednesday, where he met with an Iranian official and Lebanese leaders from the ruling party and Hizbullah, before traveling to Damascus to meet with that country's president, Bashar Assad.

His regional hopscotch is an effort to cobble together a deal that would probably see pressure lessened on Syria over its political role in Lebanon in return for Hizbullah, an ally of Syria and Iran's, agreeing to a smaller role in a new Lebanese government than it has been demanding so far. The current Beirut government, in turn, is heavily backed by both the US and by Saudi Arabia, which sees it as a bulwark against the expansion of Iranian influence in the region.

From Iraq to Lebanon and in the capitals of Amman and Cairo, the perception of Iran as a potential threat is driving the new engagement and is making for unusual alliances in which the interests of a state like Israel's are being closely aligned with those of the Saudi Arabian monarchy.

In a speech in Dubai Wednesday, British Prime Minister Tony Blair starkly summed up the views of the many governments that fear the expansion of Iranian power.

Iran has profited strategically from the rise of a Shiite-dominated government in Iraq whose main leaders are drawn from Shiite Islamist movements, the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI) and the Dawa Party, which have close ties to Tehran.

Mr. Blair accused parts of Iran's government of "openly supporting terrorism in Iraq ... trying to turn out a democratic government in Lebanon; flaunting the international community's desire for peace in Palestine ... and trying to acquire nuclear weapons capability."

While Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and Israel are less concerned about democracy in Iraq or Lebanon, they are all committed to opposing an expansion of Iranian power, which they see as threatening their own vital interests.

In that area of concern, Iraq once again takes center stage. Saudi Arabia and Jordan are not only concerned about refugees and a sectarian war that could spill over and destabilize their countries, analysts say, but with the chance that Iraq could take center stage in the 25-year-old cold war that has persisted between Shiite Iran and its Sunni neighbors.

"All of these players are on the same side wishing to preserve the state order rather than seeing it undone," says Asher Susser, an expert on Jordanian-Israeli relations at Tel Aviv University. "That is why the undoing of Iraq causes such anxiety to Israel, to Jordan, to all those adjacent to Iraq."

Their current maneuvers, talking with disaffected former Baathists in their capitals and, regional diplomats say, quietly passing money to Sunni insurgent groups in Iraq in an effort to build up influence and intelligence aren't particularly likely to end Iraq's war soon.

But they could find a way to contain the violence there and the regional animosities it is threatening to inflame, or set the stage for Iraq to become a proxy battle ground.

"If you're looking forward, this is the next stage," says Toby Dodge, a political scientist and expert on Mideast Politics at Queen Mary College at the University of London. "The point will soon come when it's much more obvious than it is today that the Americans are going home, and then what will the Saudis and others do?

"Will they say, right, the sky is falling in ... but we have an opportunity to contain it by working together? Or, will this become the front line of a much nastier covert war?" he says.

Greg Gause, a political science professor at the University of Vermont and Middle East expert, says: "This is about balance of power politics ... it seems to me what the Saudis, particularly the Saudis, fear is growing Iranian power, and they fear that the Iranians will seek to use that to destabilize the Gulf and their own country, through their own Shia populations."

Regional diplomats say Saudi Arabia is already funding some Sunni groups in the country, and a recent International Crisis Group report on Iraq recommended that Saudi Arabia cut "off funding from private Saudi sources" to insurgent groups in Iraq that refuse work toward a national peace deal.

Iran, for its part, is in fact expanding its influence inside that country. "They want to be the guiding foreign-policy actor in Iraq, which will eventually have an oil policy, and that's also something Iran wants a say in.... I think they're winning all this and they're ambitious," says Mr. Gause.

Mr. Dodge says that Saudi and Jordanian fears about expanding Iranian influence, famously termed by Jordan's Abdullah as a potential "Shiite crescent" arcing from Iran to Lebanon, exaggerates the threat to their states, but the fear itself is nevertheless real and could have negative consequences.

Correspondents Nicholas Blanford in Beirut and Joshua Mitnick in Tel Aviv contributed to this report.

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