US to meet Iraq's neighbors, but sectarian divisions remain deep

Sunnis and Shiites are split as officials prepare to gather in Egypt to discuss Iraq's future.

By , Staff writer

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.

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.

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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."

Iran's regional role

Still, Mr. Assiri says it is "very positive" that Iraq, its neighbors, and other major powers will meet for two days. Of particular interest is the fact that high officials from the US and Iran will both participate, with Rice saying she does not "rule out" a face-to-face encounter with her Iranian counterpart, Manouchehr Mottaki.

"Iran, and to a lesser extent [Syria], are the key to changing the conditions in Iraq, and unless the US comes to terms with them, there's not too much chance that assembling the neighbors can make much difference," says Shteiwi. Noting recent reports of back-channel contacts between the US and Iran, he adds, "There are some indications [the US] could go in that direction or at least start the process."

Thursday's meeting is expected to produce an international "compact for Iraq," though its final form may not be all the Iraqis and the US had hoped for. The idea was to deliver 100 percent debt relief, reconstruction assistance, and broad international support for the Iraqi government in exchange for Iraqi commitments to fulfill a list of actions including oil-revenue sharing among major population groups, political reconciliation measures, disbanding of militias, and constitutional reform.

In that sense the compact resembles the "benchmarks" sought by the US Congress in exchange for a continued US military presence in Iraq.

Yet while a number of countries have agreed to some debt relief – Saudi Arabia notably agreed to write off 80 percent of the $15 billion in Iraqi debt it holds – resistance to fully forgiving the debt of an oil-rich country remains strong. In addition, countries like Kuwait and Iran continue to seek billions of dollars in reparations for wars from the Saddam Hussein era.

Telltale signs of regional rifts remained apparent up to the eve of the conference. An Arab-backed draft of the compact called for "constructive steps towards reviewing and amending" the constitution and the "de-Baathification" law that threw thousands of Iraqi Sunnis out of their jobs. But a version Iraq supports only calls for a "review' of the constitution and does not mention de-Baathification.

The divisions show the difficulties of trying to foster a regional diplomatic process – one of the top recommendations of the Iraq Study Group. But some experts still see a key role for neighboring countries in motivating Iraqis to take some reconciliation measures lacking so far.

"Use the regional leverage and that would really bring fear, and maybe then they will move on and compromise on some of these critical issues," says Laith Kubba, a top aide to former Iraqi Prime Minister Ibrahim al-Jaafari who is now at the National Endowment for Democracy in Washington. "The Kurds fear Turkey ....The Shiites fear the Arab presence in all its weight .... The Sunnis are afraid of Iran," he adds. "It's a way to get all of them thinking in national terms."

And prompting Iraqis to act more like a nation might be one of the more useful influences the neighbors could have, analysts say. "The nature of the Iraqi government just now is part of the problem. It acts mostly like a collection of political parties and sectarian powers," says Shteiwi. "What Iraq needs is a national leader who acts like he is leading a state rather than a party."

Iraq conference goals

Attendees hope to:

• Deliver 100 percent debt relief

• Provide reconstruction assistance

• Improve security on Iraq's borders

In exchange, they want Iraq to:

• Share oil revenue with major ethnic groups

• Disband militias

• Reconcile with Sunni political groups

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