US to meet Iraq's neighbors, but sectarian divisions remain deep
SHARM EL-SHEIK, EGYPT
A conference envisioned as a way to enlist the help of Iraq's neighbors is instead exposing the deep fissures in the Middle East and the widening differences these countries have on Iraq.Skip to next paragraph
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The original idea of the two-day international meeting, opening Thursday in this Egyptian seaside resort with the participation of dozens of foreign ministers and other high officials, was to focus regional players and major powers on debt relief, security, and stabilization for war-ravaged Iraq.
Instead, the run-up to the event has demonstrated the lack of widespread support in the Sunni Arab countries for the government of Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and the deep suspicions they harbor of a Shiite-dominated regime with growing ties to non-Arab, Shiite Iran.
Indeed, preconference maneuverings highlighted more than anything else how the Iraq war and the toppling of a Sunni regime to make way for a majority-rule Shiite government have aggravated the region's deep sectarian divisions.
First, Saudi Arabia's King Abdullah – who had earlier called the US-led Iraq war and occupation "illegitimate" – refused to meet with Mr. Maliki as he made preconference rounds this past weekend. Then conference host Egypt proposed that the event conclude by endorsing a three-month cease-fire between the Iraqi government and Sunni insurgents.
Iraq's foreign minister said Wednesday that his country had persuaded Egypt to drop the call for a cease-fire. But some experts say those actions simply exposed the reality that this was never going to be a meeting of friends.
"The fact is that while these countries may be neighbors, they do not have the same views and interests, and what we are seeing is a number of countries acting in what they see as their own interest," says Musa Shteiwi, general director of the Jordan Center for Social Research in Amman, Jordan. "Iran and Saudi Arabia may both have an important influence in Iraq, for example, but their interests are not the same."
US to appeal to nations' self-interest
Perhaps sensing this reality, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice is expected to appeal to self-interest when she enlists the help of Iraq's neighbors in stabilizing Iraq, in particular at Friday's meeting focusing on security.
According to State Department officials, Dr. Rice will emphasize that aiding Iraq's stabilization – for example by closing borders to foreign fighters from around the Muslim world – is not so much aimed at saving the US from a military quagmire or even propping up the Iraqi government as it is about quelling violence that could spread and destabilize the region.
Still, Sunni governments appear to be putting their emphasis elsewhere. Saudi Arabia, Jordan, and Egypt are not happy with the way Iraq's Sunnis have been treated under the Shiite-led Maliki government, Mr. Shteiwi says. That may explain the Saudi king's weekend snub of Maliki, but Shteiwi also notes that Jordan's King Abdullah expressed his concerns two years ago about the consequences of a rising "Shiite crescent" led by Iran.
Other analysts see other factors at work. "These [Sunni] regimes do not like to see majority rule and democracy implanted in Iraq," says Abdul-Reda Assiri, a political scientist at the University of Kuwait. "They are coming from a pan-Arabist position that it should be a minority rule." And to support that, he adds, the Sunni neighbors "are playing to propagate the thinking that Shiite rule is a failure to Iraq."