At Kuwait meeting, U.S. hope for regional aid to Iraq
The summit of Arab neighbors Tuesday is the third attempt to gain more support for Iraq's reconstruction from Sunni states. Baghdad's crackdown on Shiite militias may help.
Until now, US-Iraqi efforts to win the support of Sunni Arab countries have resulted largely in empty smiles and handshakes.Skip to next paragraph
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But when Iraq attends a third summit with its neighbors and international parties including the United Nations in Kuwait Tuesday, the US hopes to see Sunni Arabs, including Saudi Arabia, open genuine channels of cooperation with Baghdad. A key part of the US-Iraqi sales pitch: Iraq's Shiite-led government has taken on the country's powerful Shiite militias, demonstrating its willingness to crack down on sectarianism.
"Iraq is really now starting to find its footing internally, and it needs to have neighbors that are helping it to find its footing inside the Arab world," said Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice after meeting Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki in Baghdad Sunday. On her way to the region Saturday, she said, "At some point the Arab states need to take yes for an answer."
The Bush administration recognizes that Iraq's political stability will require the cooperation of neighbors, perhaps even some kind of security entente, and in its waning months is more actively pushing regional diplomacy. But the neighbors may still be too busy fighting proxy wars in Iraq to think about cooperation, some analysts believe. Saudi Arabia, with one eye on Iran and suspicious of the Maliki government's pro-Tehran elements, continues to support Sunni parties and groups unhappy with the weak Shiite-dominated government.
For its part, Iran is juggling numerous objectives in Iraq, from seeing a stable but relatively weak Shiite government maintain power to taking whatever steps might help rid it of the sizable US military presence next door.
"The Arab regimes may have been relieved to see Mr. Maliki order an offensive against the Shiite militias, but they are still fearful," says Hazim al-Shameri, a professor of political science at Baghdad University. "The fact is the Sunni Arabs don't have good relations with Shiite Iran, and now they find themselves with an Iraq governed by Shiites and building close relations with Iran."
Secretary Rice has ruled out a formal meeting with her Iranian counterpart in the margins of the Kuwait summit – which will also include a sideline discussion of the political crisis in Lebanon where Iran-backed Hizbullah is pitted against US-supported forces. A similar gathering in Sharm el-Sheik a year ago included lower-level US-Iran contacts that led to meetings in Baghdad between the two countries' ambassadors.
The US nevertheless hopes to see Tehran pursue the more cooperative stance in Iraq that it appeared ready to test out a year ago. If nothing else, the Sunni neighbors should realize that the best way to offset the influence of Shiite Iran is to support the Maliki government and become more influential themselves, Washington believes.
The US is also hoping some Sunni countries will announce that they are ready to open embassies in Baghdad – though the success of such initiatives has been patchy in the past. Egypt sent an ambassador to Baghdad soon after the fall of Saddam Hussein, but he was assassinated.
Iraq, for its part, is looking for promises of debt reduction from its neighbors.